|IN PERFORMANCE: JAZZ; Playing Tight to the Vest, Then Letting Loose
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: January 14, 2004, Wednesday
Aaron Neville encased himself in a black suit on Friday night, so you couldn't see much of his normally conspicuous body art: his bracelets, his tattoos, his muscles. Aside from the sword inked onto his left cheek, there were no distractions: just some lyric sheets in front of him, a pianist and a bassist and a bunch of old American standards.
Mr. Neville, the New Orleans pop singer and a member of the Neville Brothers, was there to perform jazz songs, or at least songs that jazz musicians have historically played, from his new album, ''Nature Boy'' (Verve). But he wasn't there to stretch out songs or improvise; he played close to the vest and barely smiled. The songs' arrangements, played by the pianist Rob Mounsey and the bassist David Finck, stuck to medium-slow efficiency, and each tune shut down promptly in a few minutes. As jazz it was fairly thin, and even as cabaret it had a strangely ascetic feeling.
The whole thing ended in under an hour, with Mr. Neville making an uncomfortable comment here and there. I'm sure there is a relationship between Aaron Neville and jazz, but on Friday they seemed to be out on a blind date.
Aside from all the other considerations, there was the singing, a small but intense pleasure. Mr. Neville's voice is quiet and thick, high and nearly confidential, and heavily ornamented. He carefully stitches extra quick syllables into his vowels, sings distinct notes step by step where other soul singers ride on swooping glissandos, fits tiny yodel effects into the end of a phrase.
The song ''Nature Boy'' fits him well, with its exotic images and eerie minor-key feeling. But the set's encore, Mr. Neville's old hit ''Tell It Like It Is,'' opened up a different part of him. He didn't look at song lyrics. He closed his eyes, moved a little bit and used emotion to power the performance, and it was beautiful. BEN RATLIFF
Published: 01 - 14 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 5