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.

Montreal Jazz Fest: Bill Frisell (concert review)

Eclectic guitarist Bill  Frisell wowed a crowd at Club Soda, at the Montreal Jazz Festival. My review for Relix is online at the mag’s sister site – jambands.com. Or read the full text below:

Bill Frisell

Club Soda – Montreal Jazz Festival

Montreal, Canada – June 28

How best to reinvigorate vintage pop music featuring melodies that are as familiar as bedtime stories to several generations of listeners?

It’s an imperfect art, but eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell took an exemplary approach to just such a mission with last year’s All We Are Saying…, a collection of instrumental versions of familiar John Lennon gems, including Beatles songs as well as solo material.

Frisell gave new life to that material even more dramatically at the intimate Club Soda, for one of the first evening concerts during the sprawling, 10-day Montreal Jazz Festival. There, the conceptual-minded six-stringer was joined by his likeminded collaborators from the album — Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Tony Scherr on a Hofner Beatle bass, and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Opening with “Across the Universe,” also the album’s first track, Frisell unleashed a series of air-hanging, ethereal notes leading the band into the gorgeous melody, with Wollesen using brushes for light rhythmic propulsion.

With the two guitarists ‘ lines often criss-crossing, the piece evolved into something of a fusion jam, and the rhythms stretched and slipped before the band shifted into avant-jazz sounds, finally dissipating.

“Beautiful Boy,” similarly, sprung to life gradually, with a free section leading into Wollesen’s laidback groove and the sing-song theme, the group finally hovering on a cloud of interlocked strings and percussion. Frisell effectively used dissonance at the start of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” tricking his way into the melody and effectively amping its emotional qualities — again, no easy feat but a task handily managed by the quartet.

Two of the set’s highlights came about midway through the 90-minute show. Scherr hinted at the distinctive slipping-upward bass line of “Come Together” before decidedly laying it down, and Frisell charged in with a fat, wooly tone for the melody; Leisz’s revved-up pedal steel solo was tinted with psychedelic touches. Then came “Julia,” perhaps the prettiest and most poignant of Lennon’s melodies, voiced by the guitarist after a long, slow drift into the piece.

Throughout a show capped with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a hushed, slow “Imagine,” Frisell and his simpatico bandmates drew from a variety of genres — rock, folk, blues, Americana, jazz, and even some West African grooves and textures (“In My Life”) — for graceful, potent new readings of Lennon’s music. They made it all look so easy.