Van Morrison’s 38th album finds the Irish soul man fit as a fiddle. Singing standards by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne and more, Morrison and his well-cast musicians play fresh renditions of this familiar material. Along with “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “A Foggy Day,” “Unchained Melody” and “Makin’ Whoopee,” six original Morrison compositions bump Versatile’s playing time to nearly 70 minutes.
Morrison’s original compositions fit smoothly alongside the album’s overall jazz vibe. He opens with “Broken Record,” a jubilant original that hits a swinging sweet spot between blues and jazz. “Take It Easy Baby” sways in that same blues-meets-jazz vein, doing so with finger-snapping cool. And the upbeat and breezy “Start All Over Again” glows with optimism.
As for the classics, Morrison doesn’t phone them in. The Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day,” Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” and others receive relaxed but never lazy treatment. Most of the selections run three-to-five minutes. Despite that brevity, there’s room for solos from the band.
Within the standards context of Versatile, the album’s beyond conventional selections also work. That goes for “Skye Boat Song,” a Scottish folk song performed here as an instrumental, and “Affirmation,” the album’s longest selection. Lasting more than six minutes, “Affirmation” qualifies as a jazz hymn flavored by Celtic overtones. Reinforcing the track’s Irish connections, Morrison’s fellow native of Northern Ireland, classical flutist James Galway, joins the meditative wanderings.
Two of the album’s most intimate songs are among its most recognizable. But Morrison avoids clichés by liberally reinventing melodies for “The Party’s Over” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
The takeaway from Versatile—while several of his 1960s and ’70s peers recently announced their retirements, Morrison sounds as if he’s still enthusiastically in the game.