That voice can interpret any vocal chart you can throw at it and make it its own. From the gritty funk of his hometown New Orleans and purloined to audiences he and his brothers in the Neville Brothers band; to country; to gospel; to assembly line ballads that in the hands of other stylists would come across as emotionless and sterile. With such a broad range of influences, it is a crime that Neville waited this long to release an album of standards. That album, Nature Boy (Verve), is a masterstroke of expertly picked tunes and currently sits atop the Billboard traditional jazz charts. The sound is unmistakably traditional, anchored by an all-star rhythm section of Ron Carter and Grady Tate, Neville immerses himself into a sound that is Manhattan at four a.m. I recently had the chance to talk with Mr. Neville from New York, where his quintet was preparing to convert the masses at Birdland.
JazzReview: First, I should offer congratulations on the release of Nature Boy and its hitting the top of the Billboard jazz chart. You must be excited.
Aaron Neville: Thank you. I’m really surprised at the chart position, but thankful that the fans are responding to it.
JazzReview: I’ve have to ask this, so I apologize in advance if comes out wrong: with your voice and stylistic range, why wait until now to record a jazz standards album? The idea would seem obvious to me.
Aaron Neville: This is something I’ve been talking to my brother Charlie for a while. We recorded a version of "These Foolish Things" and (Verve President) Ron Goldstein listened to it. Then he hooked up with my management and pitched the idea.
JazzReview: The most surprising thing about Nature Boy is that, aside from your voice, it doesn’t sound like an Aaron Neville record. It sounds like Aaron Neville casually jamming with these New York jazz heavyweights in some dark club before sunrise. Was that the type of vibe you wanted?
Aaron Neville: I wanted to be true to the feel of these songs. Rob Mounsey’s (piano) goal for this was to cushion (the music) under the vocal. And with this rhythm section, they definitely know how to complement a singer. They listen to the music and play to complement the melody and the vocal.
JazzReview: Could you describe the song selection process a bit for me?
Aaron Neville: Charlie, Rob, and I sat down and each made some selections. Ron Goldstein suggested "Who Will Buy?" I never heard it before. Ron said it was from Oliver.
JazzReview: The musical?
Aaron Neville: Yeah. He brought it to me and I liked the melody.
JazzReview: It has a bouncy beat to it really matches your phrasing.
Aaron Neville: Rob came up with that arrangement. I just sang it. It came out nice.
JazzReview: There are no Leonard Cohen selections on this record. I think you interpret his songs beautifully.
Aaron Neville: We had some of his songs in the selection process. They just didn’t make the cut. We did record a Cole Porter tune ("In The Still Of The Night") that I think comes closest to the type of Cohen songs I like to sing.
JazzReview: How excited were you to work with Ron Carter and Grady Tate? Their presence alone would seem to legitimize the project for skeptics of you recording a jazz album.
Aaron Neville: I enjoyed being in the studio with them. They’re true professionals and it was a dream come true to do this album with them.
JazzReview: What are you doing in New York right now?
Aaron Neville: Basically promoting the album, getting ready to do some shows at Birdland with my quintet.
JazzReview: With the success of this album, will you be doing any further explorations into jazz music?
Aaron Neville: I hope so. I don’t think I’d be doing this if it weren’t for Charlie. He’s my favorite musician in the world.
JazzReview: you do speak highly of him in the interviews and press releases I read preparing for this interview. Do you have any other jazz influences?
Aaron Neville: Well, I like Charlie Parker, Ella, Billie Holiday. Growing up my mother played Sarah Vaughan and Nat Cole in the house regularly. I always loved Sam Cooke, because he seemed very versatile. He sang gospel, soul, blues, pop music. One of my favorite albums is Sam’s Mr. Soul album. I can’t seem to find it anywhere these days.
JazzReview: It’s funny that you mention Sam Cooke. My favorite album of his is Nightbeat which, to me, has a similar vibe to Nature Boy. Both albums sound like they’re being recorded in this intimate setting sound very spontaneous.
Aaron Neville: I think both those Sam Cooke albums came out around the same time, probably ’64. But Mr. Soul really hit home with me. I enjoy identifying with that.
JazzReview would like to thank Verve Records and the staff at Elevation Group Management for arranging this interview.