Van Morrison Energizes SFJAZZ with Spirited Classics


Van Morrison performs at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco on Oct. 18.

(Photo: Bill Evans)

While it was definitely a coup, SFJAZZ booking Van Morrison for two consecutive nights starting Oct. 18 was also a natural fit.

Morrison’s appearance at SFJAZZ Center followed an Oct. 17 booking at nearby Davies Symphony Hall. The legendary singer-songwriter’s trademark blend of rock, folk, jazz and blues was an ideal fit for a non-profit organization that has presented concerts featuring genres well beyond jazz at its nearly four-year-old venue.

Oct. 18 marked the first time in over 16 years that Morrison had performed at a venue of this size—the Miner Auditorium seats a maximum of 700—in San Francisco.

Leading a sextet with vocalist Dana Masters, keyboardist Paul Moran, guitarist David Keary, bassist Paul Moore and drummer Robbie Ruggiero, Morrison opened the evening with little fanfare beyond a simple announcement. The title track from his latest album, Keep Me Singing, which was released on Sept. 30 by Caroline, was a familiar-sounding if new choice. An economical electric guitar solo by Keary preceded a longer harmonica exploration by Morrison.

Playing alto saxophone on the title track to 2005’s Magic Time, Morrison segued into a reworked uptempo version of “Have I Told You Lately” that swung considerably more than the original recorded version, which first appeared on 1989’s Avalon Sunset (Polydor). Moore switched to double bass for his walking bass line, and Ruggiero’s syncopated cymbal work was on point as Moran switched between organ and trumpet.

Morrison has both historic and present ties to the Bay Area. He lived in Marin County in the 1970s and recorded his third live album, A Night in San Francisco (Mercury, 1994) at the Masonic Auditorium, where SFJAZZ has presented the likes of the world premiere of Ornette Coleman’s Tone Dialing, the rebooted George Shearing Quintet and the last-ever performance of the classic Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kenny Kirkland.

Vocalist Shana Morrison, Van’s daughter, is a Northern California native and current resident. She joined her father about halfway through the set for a stylish take on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic.” An SFJAZZ staff member revealed that Van was performing here at his daughter’s suggestion. (Shana—along with Gregory Porter, George Benson, Michael Bublé, Georgie Fame and a dozen other guest collaborators—appeared on Van’s 2015 album for RCA, Duets: Re-working The Catalogue.)

Another locally based musical treasure, blues & boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods, was then introduced for a number Morrison said he recorded in New Orleans with Taj Mahal, as well an energetic version of “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”

Morrison offered thoughtful harmonica accompaniment to Woods’ keyboard solo on the former, and the latter featured every band member save Moran handling spirited backing vocals during and after his technically dazzling keyboard showcase.

Moran played an upbeat piano introduction to “Whenever God Shines His Light” (also from Avalon Sunset) before digging into the adjacent organ for his most inspired solo of the concert.

He switched to flugelhorn for “Too Late” from the new album, enjoying some brief frontline moments with Morrison’s alto saxophone playing.

The final quarter of the set covered a nearly 40-year swath of Morrison’s recorded career. A master of seamless and extemporaneous transitions, he wove together a medley of three songs from 1995’s Days Like This (“In the Afternoon,” “Ancient Highway” and “Raincheck”) with an extended tribute to Big Joe Turner.

“Talk Is Cheap” (from Down The Road) brought the timeline up to 2002, while an impassioned rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” (which was captured on Morrison’s live album Too Late to Stop Now) rewound to 1974.

Longtime fans and younger Morrison disciples alike in the multi-generational audience were treated to the final one-two offering that started with a near mystical version of “Ballerina” (from 1968’s Astral Weeks). After Morrison exited stage right for less than 90 seconds, he returned for a rousing elongation of his classic hit “Gloria,” which he recorded with his band, Them, in 1964.

The capacity crowd jumped up to clap and dance in place, and the rest of the band members each got an extended solo after Morrison left halfway through the encore. It was the emotional climax to a respectfully restrained atmosphere.

Witnessing Morrison looking so relaxed in such an intimate setting, one can easily imagine him playing in a pub at pretty much anytime throughout his life. At 71 years old, his voice has retained its clarity and wisdom—always a welcome sign for a seasoned musician who enjoys iconic status.

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July 2022
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