‘The fullness of his heart and soul’ reflected in Aaron Neville’s music
The Breckenridge Music Festival and the town of Breckenridge will present a Blue River Series concert Sunday, featuring R&B legend Aaron Neville as he celebrates the classic music that’s near and dear to his heart.
In the opening notes on “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” his most recent album, the artist known to millions of devoted fans worldwide comes through less as the musical legend than as an ordinary man appealing to an eternal God. His signature vibrato rises and dips as if in a musical prayer — full of passion, utterly sincere.
It is, perhaps, the most powerful moment of a uniquely moving album — his first gospel recording since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city he cherished, destroying his personal home and forever altering so much of the life he knew. Despite that tragic backdrop, the project plays not as a mournful reflection but rather as a hopeful celebration of the three things that have shaped Neville most of all: his hometown, his music and his faith.
Coming full circle
In grand New Orleans style, “I Know I’ve Been Changed” celebrates Neville’s 50th year of recording music. The album brings the artist’s career full circle, returning him to the music he loved first — gospel — and reuniting him with Allen Toussaint, the legendary songwriter, musician and producer who produced Neville’s first recording session in 1960.
Toussaint, who grew up in a nearby New Orleans neighborhood and attended the same school as the Neville brothers, has been a frequent collaborator with Neville over the years.
“Aaron gives the song, the art, the fullness of his heart and soul every time,” Toussaint said. “He has always been that way. It’s good to know that when something is that good, it’s good forever — the velvet voice of Aaron Neville.”
A group of hard hitters
Producer Joe Henry and Neville recorded “I Know I’ve Been Changed” over a period of five days, using a stripped-down production approach to showcase the strength of the 12 handpicked songs, as well as the beauty of Neville’s unmistakable vocals. In true old-school fashion, the musicians played along with Neville’s vocals in-studio to capture the feel of a live set. Arranging and recording such a large amount of material over such a short period required masterful focus and teamwork.
“When I go to the gym, I go to work out. When I go to church, I go to pray. When I go to the studio, I go to sing,” Neville said.
To handle the challenge of that level of performance, the producer assembled some of the top players.
“I call them hard hitters at the bat,” Neville said. “With them playing, there weren’t too many mistakes. … It was like a labor of love for everybody. They loved all the songs and they put their all into it. It was a fun album, working with those guys.”
Sing once, pray twice
Over the past five decades, the indelible spirit of New Orleans has been synonymous with the musical dynasty known as the Neville Brothers. For Aaron Neville the solo artist, there is an equally intimate connection between his music and the faith that has sustained him for his entire life. Through challenge and tragedy, he’s managed to thrive, protecting both his heart and his voice. Ask him how and he says simply: “he who sings once, prays twice.”
“My momma, Amelia Landry Neville, always taught the golden rule to us — to treat others as we would like to be treated,” he said. “One of her favorite sayings was this: ‘I’ll only pass this way once. Therefore, any goodness or kindness I can show let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’”
That perspective served him well in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
“Right after the storm, we’d go places to perform and run into displaced people from New Orleans everywhere,” Neville said. “So when we go sing, we’re singing for them and letting them know they’re not by themselves. There’s hope.”
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