Aaron Neville, “My True Story” (CD review)


my true storyAaron 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.

Trumpet Men on the Big Screen: Dueling Miles Davis Biopics?; and a Louis Armstrong Flick

It’s been common knowledge, for a little while, that Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, the Ocean’s Eleven films) is directing and starring in the Miles Davis biopic, which is being produced by Miles’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr. Wilburn played drums with the trumpeter and lived with him for three years beginning in 1984.

Now comes encouraging news that Herbie Hancock, pianist for Miles’ second great quintet, is scoring the film, and Cheadle is co-writing the script. That’s according to an interview with Wilburn and Erin Davis, Miles’ youngest son, published online at YRB.com.

Wilburn, as quoted by YRB, said: “We’re in the process of OK’ing the script with a new writer. Don didn’t like the other writer that was attached to the movie, so there’s a new writer named Steven Vegelman that Don’s writing with. Once is the script is OK’d by the family, then we go into production.”

The new writer referred to in the YRB story may be Steven Baigelman, who did the screenplays for Feeling Minnesota and My Brother’s Keeper, and is working on the forthcoming James Brown biopic.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the film — yet to be titled — is “in development” for 2011, and the latest chapter in its history stretches back to a treatment/outline that was prepared in April 2006. Cheadle is listed as director/producer, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (both of whom worked together on Ali and Nixon) as writers, and  Porter and Wilburn as producers. Wilkinson and Rivele are also listed as exec producers, along with Cary Brokaw.

The film is being produced by Cheadle’s production company, Crescendo Prods., which in November 2008 inked a “two-year, first-look” deal with Overture Films.

Way back in 1993, Wesley Snipes was slated to play Miles. And in 2006, Darryl Porter, general manager of the Miles Davis Estate, told Jazz Times that Antoine Fuqua would be directing the biopic.

Which era of Miles’ long career will be the focus of the film? Two hints, so far, both suggesting an ’80s emphasis —  Wilburn’s involvement, and the fact that IMDB lists rookie Kevin Navayne (seen in one episode each of “Army Wives” and “CSI:NY”) as the actor who will portray Marcus Miller, the bassist/producer who worked with Miles from 1985 until the trumpeter’s death in 1991.

Earlier this month, Cheadle told Vibe that his film is on the verge of beginning production. “In my attempt to tell the story, I’m not trying to do some reverential all-of-us-bow-down-to-Miles-the-icon. I’m trying to present him as a man. I’m trying to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to make.”

He also spoke to Parade magazine about his hopes for the movie: “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re working on the script right now,” Cheadle said for a story dated March 4, the same day that the Vibe piece was published. I think it will happen. I love Miles, but you have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. He would tell a long story, and someone would go, ‘That’s amazing. Did that happen?’ He’d reply, ‘I don’t f— know. You figure it out.’ He wasn’t interested in what you thought about him. He was like, ‘I’m about the music. Deal with that.’ Capturing the essence of that man is a challenge.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a)the Cheadle film indeed will get made, and b)Miles’ story won’t be overtly Hollywood-ized. In the case of Miles Davis, the truth about his life is stranger, and more interesting, than any fiction that could be tacked on for dramatic purposes.

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Miles’ offspring have experienced at least some degree of conflict, as his sons Gregory and Miles IV reportedly were excluded from his will. Meanwhile, his estate is being handled by Miles Davis Properties, LLC, a group that includes Erin Davis, Wilburn, Miles daughter Cheryl and his brother-in-law Vince Wilburn Sr.

That conflict may be played out on the big screen, in terms of competing visions of Miles’ life: Another Davis biopic, also listed by IMDB as “in development” for 2011, is Dark Magus: The Miles Davis Story, adapted from Gregory’s 2006 book “Dark Magus: The Jekyll & Hyde Life of Miles Davis.”

Dark Magus is being scripted by Isaac Fergusson, and produced by Ged Dickersin and Nick Raynes, according to IMDB, in an entry last updated on Oct. 9. The production company: Davis Raynes Productions Inc.

The New York Post, on Oct. 2, 2008, had this to say about the Dark Magus film: “…Nick Davis Raynes is a well-mannered movie producer who just optioned the rights to “Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis,” by the jazz great’s son, Gregory Davis. “I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis. We plan to tell his true story and preserve his legacy,” Raynes told Page Six. Gregory was the only son who traveled with Miles on tour, but then had to sue his father’s estate because he was left out of his will. Besides the lead role, there will be juicy parts playing Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. “Miles was a huge mentor to Hendrix,” Raynes said.”

Interesting side note to all of this: Earlier this year, rapper Snoop Dogg said that he wanted to play Miles, according to a blog called, simply, The Miles Davis Movie. The blog isn’t officially affiliated with the Cheadle movie, or any other film.

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Forest Whitaker, who played Charlie Parker in 1988’s Bird, tries on another jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, in What a Wonderful World, scheduled for release sometimes next year. Whitaker, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, is also directing the film, from a script written by veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass (Amelia, Entrapment, Snow Falling on Cedars, Dangerous Minds, Rain Man).

The Armstrong movie, naturally, will be shot in New Orleans. Last week, Whitaker said that he’s spending a year learning to play trumpet and preparing for the role, according to an item posted online at AceShowbiz.

Whitaker also said that the film won’t shy away from Armstrong’s passion for marijuana.

“He smoked weed every day and it’s in the movie where he wrote to the president to try and make it legal. We will have that in the film.”

The movie is the fourth feature film to be helmed by Whitaker, who made his directorial debut with 1995’s Waiting to Exhale.

Why direct the Armstrong film? I’d guess that it stems in part from Whitaker’s apparent recent love affair with New Orleans. In recent years, he’s acted in several films set or partly set there, including Hurricane Season and My Own Love Song.

Here’s what he told Variety, a couple of years ago, according to a story published at Nola.com: “Armstrong left a monumental mark on our lives and our culture. He lived an amazing life and, through his art, shifted the way music was played and would be heard after him, not just here in the U.S. but all over the world.”

Satchmo Summerfest, held every summer in New Orleans, is an annual interntaional focal point for all things Louis Armstrong. This year’s event, again organized by the same group that produces the French Quarter Fest, will be held in the steamy season – Aug. 5-8. For more information, click here.

R.I.P., Louie Bellson

Louie Bellson, the great big band drummer and a veteran of performances and recordings with everyone from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman to James Brown and Wayne Newton, passed away on Saturday. louie

He was 84, and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He had been recovering from a broken hip, resulting from a fall he suffered in November.

Bellson was truly a gifted and explosive drummer, and his career unofficially began at age 17, when he bested about 40,000 other trap-kit players in the Slingerland National Gene Krupa drumming contest.

I first heard Bellson, live, in the late ’70s, when he played with the UF Jazz Band in Gainesville. I recall being dazzled by his ability to use the entirety of his drum kit, his creativity as a soloist (long solos that were never boring), and his overall musicianship.

In addition to his work as a drummer, he wrote more than 1,000 compositions and penned more than a dozen instructional books, according to his web site.

Bellson’s most recent CD, in collaboration with trumpeter Clark Terry, another living legend, is Louie & Clark Expedition 2, released last year.

Jack Bowers, on the site All About Jazz, gave high praise to the CD:  louie-and-clark“Incredible. Who could have foreseen that drummer Louie Bellson and trumpeter Clark Terry, both of whom joined the celebrated Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1951, would be reunited for another high-powered big-band date in 2007. Even more amazing, what are the odds that Terry, who has turned eighty-seven, and Bellson, three years his junior, would still be playing like zealous teen-agers auditioning for their first gig.”

In 2006, the drummer released The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet.

Ellington once called Bellson “the world’s greatest drummer,” as Don Heckman notes in a piece published today in the Los Angeles Times.

Bellson, born Luigino Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni in Rock Falls, Illinois, was the only white member of the Ellington’s orchestra when he worked with that band from 1951 to 1953.

It was during that period that he met and married African-American singer Pearl Bailey; he later served as Bailey’s musical director and, in the ’60s, he again worked with Ellington. Bailey died in 1990, and the drummer later remarried.

Here’s additional info related to Bellson’s passing, from his web site:

Tentative plans are for an L.A. area funeral, followed by funeral and burial in Moline, Illinois, his boyhood home. Details forthcoming.

Send your Condolences and cards to:

Mrs. Louie Bellson
c/o Remo, Inc.
28101 Industry Drive
Valencia, CA 91355
Contributions in memory of Louie Bellson can be made to:
Emmanuel Baptist Church and mailed to Mrs. Bellson at the address above.

Bootsy Collins — Making Music to Support the Soldiers

Funk/R&B bass monster Bootsy Collins (Parliament/Funkadelic, James Brown, etc.) recently volunteered his time and talent to put together a recording, the Fallen Soldiers Memorial CD, designed to fund the Fallen Soldiers Memorial Museum.

Collins, as he recounts in the January issue of Bass Player magazine, grew excited about contributing to the cause after befriending a man, Keith Maupin, whose son, Matt, was killed while serving in Iraq. The bassist decided to help raise funds for Cincinnati’s Yellow Ribbon Support Center.

And then he opted to to make an even bigger effort.

“That’s when my eyes and heart were opened to what is really going on,” the Cincinatti native told Bass Player. “I had been hung up on the War issue like most creative people. Then, when I separated the War from the Soldier and from the Families, I began to see the people who are being killed and hurt. These are people just like you and me.”

The museum’s purpose, as was explained to Collins: “This would be a place where soldiers’  families could go to talk and help heal, relate to people who have the same experiences, and reflect over the material things that tte Museum has collected on behalf of the family. This special place would honor all the fallen soldiers and bring together those who have let go of their sons and duaghters to face that ultimate sacrifice.”

The upshot: Collins, through his Bootzilla Productions, Fallen Soldiers Memorial CDtapped Charlie Daniels, George Duke, Blair Carmen and other artists for the project.

The album was officially released on Thanksgiving Day, and reportedly is available online through Bootsy Collins, the Yellow Ribbon Support Center (see links above), iTunes and several retail outlets. There’s talk of a related DVD to come in February.