Aaron Neville, “My True Story” (Blue Note)
Fans of the Neville Brothers, whose combination of sweet soul singing, deep R&B grooves, jazzy touches and Caribbean influences practically define the sound of New Orleans, doubtless have been feeling a bit blue lately.
Why? Angelic-voiced front man Aaron Neville has opted to officially exit the group and focus on his solo career. He, rather than the Neville Brothers, will play the closing set at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, while siblings Art, Charles and Cyril, rechristened “The Nevilles,” will cap the first weekend and, one guesses, resume touring — no doubt they’ll be lighter on the sweet harmonies if heavier on the funk.
It would hardly be fair to blame Aaron for making his move. The time is right. After all, the family band, with “Papa Funk” Art Neville now 75 and in less than robust health, largely has been inactive in recent years. What’s more, at 72 and having survived the loss of his wife Joel to lung cancer and relocation from New Orleans to the Nashville area and then New York City in recent years, he’s more than earned the right to go his own way.
“I put the Neville Brothers on hold for a while so I could do my solo thing,” Neville told Relix magazine. “We’ve been together 35 years and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how long I’ve got to do what I want to do.’ I need to take that time now and dedicate it to me, and just try to do my stuff I’ve been wanting to do all my life.”
“My True Story” suggests that Neville’s instincts were, well, true. Initially conceived as a doo-wop project reflecting his formative experiences in the art of street-corner singing, the album expanded into something larger. It’s a broader tribute to the pre-rock era, with a dozen retro pop radio favorites originally recorded during a roughly 12-year period ending in 1964.
Don Was, once part of soul-fired pop act Was (Not Was) and now head of the revived Blue Note label, put together a dream team to back Neville. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards leads a band that includes Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, on keyboards; guitarist Greg Leisz (Sheryl Crow, Beck); bassist Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, Steven Bernstein); New Orleans drummer George G. Receli (James Brown, Bob Dylan); and journeyman saxophonist Lenny Pickett (“Saturday Night Live” band, Tower of Power).
The band, with Was and Richards co-producing live-in-the-studio sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, reportedly cut nearly two dozen tracks, all of which benefit from an appealing immediacy — the stuff sounds fresh.
For the first volume of what may become a series, Neville applies his rich, shivery, tenor vocals to material that still comes with a kick after all these years. He opens with the rollicking, starting-stopping “Money Honey,” a 1953 chart topper by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, this time featuring Richards’ slinky six-string stabs, and closes with a suitably light and altogether effervescent version of the much-recorded “Goodnight My Love” (Pleasant Dreams).”
In between are 10 other gems that ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop music history.
Neville’s voice slides into the falsetto stratosphere on the title track, a 1961 single by the Jive Five that soared up the R&B and pop charts.; the tune, like many on the disc, is bolstered by a blue-chip backup crew of old-school singers, including the Jive Five’s Eugene Pitt, Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, and Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings.
There are plenty of other finger-snapping delights here, including “Ruby Ruby,” with its infectious call and response, and Pickett’s crunching bari sax; “Ting A Ling,” all romantic frustration and pounding piano and sax; a pleasantly streamlined “Be My Baby”; heartbreak ode “Tears On My Pillow”; a laidback, gently grooving “Under the Boardwalk”; a chug-a-lugging “Work With Me Annie,” with “Papa Funk” Art Neville on B3; and a medley stitching “This Magic Moment” to “True Love.”
Yes, these tunes inherently come with a strong whiff of nostalgia. Give Neville and Co. credit for reinvigorating these classics in a manner that’s often irresistible. Great concept, beautifully executed. Now, about that sequel.