How long Has This Been Going On
Van Morrison (Verve 314 529 136) Although Van Morrison has been flirting with jazz since 1968, when he recorded "Astral Weeks" with Richard Davis and Connie Kay, he only just got around to his first jazz date. Recorded last year at Ronnie Scott's in London, "How Long Has This Been Going On" is a straight-ahead blowing session that could as easily have taken place in the '50s. Morrison and his mates are by no means dilettantes; in addition to longtime sidemen Georgie Fame and Pee Wee Ellis, the singer recruited such top-drawer British jazz talent as Guy Barker, Alan Skidmore and Alec Dankworth. But for all the bop-schooled professionalism of his sidemen, it's Morrison who makes or breaks these songs, and many listeners will be surprised by the way things work out. He has no trouble negotiating the rhythmic and harmonic challenges of Charlie Parker's 'The New Symphony Sid" and even holds his own against Annie Ross on the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross chestnut "Centerpiece," but he's rather less impressive on R&B-oriented; numbers such as "Early in the Morning," which lack the edge of the bop tunes. Still, the infectious fun of Morrison's "Heathrow Shuffle" and Mose Allison's "Your Mind Is On Vacation" more than compensate, while his scat-fueled remake of "Moondance" is a must for any fan.
Jonatha Brooke & the Story (Blue Thumb 7003)
Singer/songwriters may have a reputation for being more concerned with words than music, but that's clearly not the case with Jonatha Brooke & the Story. As well-crafted as her lyrics are, the best thing about "Plumb" isn't her wordplay but her music. Brooke has an impressive ability to convey mood through melody and harmony, and the best songs here make their emotional content clear long before the lyrics sink in. Even better, Brooke shuffles styles and plays with form as freely as Joni Mitchell, moving easily from the bluesy thump of "Nothing Sacred" to the dreamy textures of "West Point," to the jazzy, Latin-inflected "Made of Gold." It helps, of course, that she has first-rate help -- Bruce Cockburn's cameo on "War" is particularly effective -- but as much as these musicians might add to the material, they're just icing on the cake, as Brooke's songs would stand up even without a band.
Echobelly (Epic 57413)
New wave may seem old hat over here, but in Britain, such bands as XTC and the Cars remain a major part of the musical landscape. Take Echobelly, for example. Anybody old enough to remember when new wave was new will have a hard time hearing "On" without flashing immediately on the sound of early Blondie. It isn't that singer Sonya Madan comes across as a Deborah Harry clone; truth be told, her singing owes as much to Smiths-era Morrissey. But between the droll exuberance of her delivery and the jangly sheen of the instrumental arrangements, it's easy to find connections between Echobelly's arch guitar-pop mannerisms and Blondie's original junk rock sound. Fortunately, Madan and guitarist Glenn Johansson write well enough to make the band's stylistic debt a minor issue. Whether through the bittersweet social satire of "Pantyhose and Roses" or the sheer sonic uplift of such songs as "King of the Kerb," Echobelly shapes up as one of Britain's best and brightest young bands.
Original Soundtrack Recording (Antilles 314 529 310)
As much as John Travolta embodied the unflappable confidence of Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty," nothing conveyed the film's off-kilter cool more completely than its music. No wonder, then, that the soundtrack to "Get Shorty" stands up even without the visuals. Playing off a sound that draws both from retro cool and contemporary club music, the album manages to find common ground between Us3's jazzy, sample-driven "Chilli Hot," Morphine's smoky, film noir "I Had My Chance," and the classic Memphis soul of "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the MG's. It helps that the music has been chosen with such exquisite care that even unfamiliar fare such as Medeski Martin and Wood's "Chubb Sub" fits comfortably in the mix. But the glue that ultimately holds the album together is composer (and former Lounge Lizard) John Lurie, whose oblique instrumental sketches bring each of the score's elements -- jazz, funk, cocktail lounge elegance, and detective movie menace -- into perfect focus. Forget Shorty: Get this album!