Versatile Aaron Neville tackles the standards on his latest CD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

En route to yet another gig, Aaron Neville is on a bus in Ventura, Calif., smack dab in the middle of the desert. The reception on his cell phone is weak. But Aaron's molasses-thick New Orleans accent is unmistakable. It's interesting that out of this big, brawny, tattooed dude flows one of pop's most angelic voices. He's usually decked out in tight jeans and leather vests, looking as if he's about to slide onto his Harley and burn rubber as he makes his way to a greasy juke joint. But Aaron is a shy guy, a homebody, who renders ballads in a crisp falsetto - the delicacy of which is, at times, heartbreakingly beautiful.

Over the past 40 years, Aaron, 62, has given us rolling funk ditties, crying-in-the-back-alley soul ballads, glossy pop fare and rootsy country tunes. His underrated catalog is as flavorful as the gumbo of his hometown.

Now he's decided to follow some of his peers such as Rod Stewart and Boz Scaggs and sing selections from the American Songbook. His latest CD, Nature Boy: The Standards Album, features 12 oft-recorded tunes by the Gershwins, Cole Porter and others. It hits stores Aug. 26.

"I've been waiting to do something like this," he says. "Some of the songs - 'Summertime,' 'Cry Me a River' - I've been doing those songs for years, anyway."

Pegging Aaron is difficult. He seems to jump genres every time he puts a record out. If you know "Tell It Like It Is," his gutbucket smash from '67, or "Hercules," his underground funk classic from '73, then it's hard to imagine such a soul man crooning maudlin ballads with Linda Ronstadt. But Aaron has never thought of himself as merely an R&B; crooner or a pop singer. He delivers what touches him, he says. And, hey, if folks dig it, buy it and he gets paid, then it's all good.

But with Nature Boy, the recording artist wanted to make a statement.

"This music has always been a part of me," he says. "Nature Boy reminds me of my father, who was a ship merchant and traveled a lot. I think about him a lot when I do that song."

It is perhaps one of the most exquisite tunes ever written (The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved in return ... ). And it's a highlight on Aaron's new set, sparkling with effervescent acoustic guitar licks, a subdued, tasteful accordion and Aaron's tender vocals.

"With the songs, I wanted to put my spin, my soul on 'em," he says.

And he does. Too bad that the album as a whole falls a little flat, though. Aaron feels stiff at times, like he's unsure about how to pull the lyric off, how to convey the stories that have been told so many times before by the masters: Sarah, Ella, Frank, Carmen, Billie and Louis.

Legendary drummer Grady Tate and respected bassist Ron Carter play on the album. From the two, Aaron says he "got pointers about how to do some of the songs. But some of them had their own kind of life, you know?"

Like Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," a song that's hard to mess up, or the Gershwins' "Summertime," another gem that always shines. Aaron's distinctive vocal quiver works in spots throughout Nature Boy. But Rob Mounsey, who produced and arranged the album, should have given him a little more air, a little more room to stretch and breathe. As the album stands, though, it's not a total bust - just a little predictable. Which is surprising because Aaron has never been afraid to jump into a genre and turn it inside out. The man is not a jazz stylist, but it's refreshing to hear him try.

Personally, he's settling into a groove. When he's not on the road as a solo act or singing with his siblings, the legendary Neville Brothers, Aaron enjoys his grandchildren, watching TV, reading, just chillin' and being.

"I like the old music, man," he says. "I don't know about this new stuff. I grew up on Nat 'King' Cole, doo-wop - the Spaniels, the Orioles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, that's what I'm listening to."

His cell phone fuzzes up. "We're gonna be doing some jazz clubs with this new album," he says. "It's gonna be nice. But it's not too much of a stretch for me."

And with that, Aaron fades out.

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