Nature Boy - The Standards Album
Aaron Neville's voice exists in that rarefied air occupied by only the most lyrical musicians, including Paul Desmond's alto saxophone and Miles Davis' muted trumpet. Sweet and throaty, reedy and always crying, it's capable of bewitching anyone within hailing distance — including, in some cases, the singer himself. Nature Boy: The Standards Album, his first record for Verve, is naturally a jazz/vocal date; Neville tackled a dozen songs from the popular songbook, with accompaniment from a backing trio comprised of pianist (and arranger/conductor) Rob Mounsey, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Grady Tate (plus one or two appearances each from Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Ry Cooder on guitar, and Ray Anderson on trombone). Though he has never recorded an album of pre-rock standards before, over the four decades of his career Neville has gained a deep familiarity with songs of this weight — "Summertime," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "In the Still of the Night," and "Cry Me a River." Understanding their power, he treats them with the utmost respect, a measure of feeling and devotion that causes him to always meet expectations but, unfortunately, never exceed them. Any Aaron Neville fan will know exactly what to expect from his version of "Summertime" or "Nature Boy" or even "Danny Boy," and Neville never displays the focused interaction between song and singer that's necessary to pull off a standard with decades of baggage attached. On several tracks, he does approach deserving the lofty term of jazz singer; he and Linda Ronstadt use their shared affection to anchor "The Very Thought of You," and the burly singer goes along for a splendid ride when the band adds a delicious hint of suspense into "The Shadow of Your Smile" (Neville's voice usually sounds better on darker material, lending a chill as when the sun passes behind a cloud). The American songbook should belong to him, an exceptional vocalist with such a deeply rooted performing persona, but it will do so only when he recognizes that the singer should never humble himself before the song.