Monday, August 11, 2014

Mapping Astral Weeks' genes

If there was an Astral Weeks Genome Project, an extensive research undertaking that identified and mapped the "genes" of Van Morrison's landmark album, a section—albeit a small one—would undoubtedly be dedicated to King Pleasure (nee Clarence Beeks).

Born in Tennessee in 1922, Beeks was an early master of vocalese, a style in which lyrics are written and sung to the recorded solos of jazz musicians. Beeks had a pair of hits—"Moody's Mood for Love," in which he recorded lyrics (written by the man credited with inventing vocalese, Eddie Jefferson) to James Moody's solo in the standard "I'm in the Mood for Love"; and "Parker's Mood," which featured his own lyrics—but was neither renowned nor prolific. He made few personal appearances and refrained from recording any new material during the final two decades of his life (he died at age 58). That Morrison was even aware of Beeks and his rather limited catalogue is further testament to his father, his much-celebrated record collection, and his appetite for arcane music produced by African-Americans.

In interviews, Morrison has cited Beeks' influence upon the vocal blueprint he created for Astral Weeks, a schematic developed in Belfast and Boston that placed equal emphasis on language and delivery. For Morrison, songs grew out of the detail and depth of the words he chose, but also out of how these words were sung. He mixed in repetition, changed tempos on a dime, tinkered with volume. It's how Morrison stretched the sinew of quote/unquote rock singing and gave Astral Weeks one of its most distinctive traits.

Listen to 1954's King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings and you hear that same stretching, that same inventiveness—a pure vocal bliss that Morrison came to adore. A word is repeated and each time it's said, new meaning is given to that word—or, at least, a different inflection of meaning. Words are packed into cramped spaces so that songs merrily inflate and soar like helium-swelled balloons. Words become playthings. At particular moments, I was reminded of a child making paper airplanes and how getting creative and folding the paper in different ways can affect how the plane flies.

King Pleasure introduced Morrison to vocalese, but more importantly, he opened the Northern Irishman's ears to the extensive capabilities of the human voice—opened his mind to the idea that the human voice is not just an instrument, but an infinite field of possibilities.

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