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Aaron Neville: Nature Boy: The Standards Album

illustration of Curtis Stigers, Boz Scaggs, Aaron Neville

Career in a slump? Haven’t had a major hit since the Reagan Administration? Not to worry. Just dig deep into the Great American Songbook, and then get your publicist to tell the world you’ve given up rock or pop or soul or country to reinvent yourself as a jazz singer. When Linda Ronstadt did it in 1983 (then did it again and again) it was a clever novelty, boosted by Ronstadt’s innate musicality and her savvy decision to invite Nelson Riddle to arrange and conduct. They weren’t jazz albums. Not by a long shot. But were pleasant, if occasionally overcooked, forays into the softer side of retro pop.

Oh, though, what Ronstadt has wrought. Motivated, surely, by the platinum success of What’s New (and the lesser, though substantial, sales of her two follow-up albums), an endless assortment of washed-up hit makers have since decided they, too, might travel the Gershwin or Mercer road to career redemption. A decade ago, at perhaps the lamentable trend’s lowest ebb (at least, to date), Lucie Arnaz-whose vocal skills clearly owe more to her mother than her father-unleashed the saccharine Just in Time on an unsuspecting world. Fortunately, the world paid little heed.

Jazz purists, astride their high horses, insist there’s no place for such crossover pap. Fair enough, at least when you’re talking about such uninspired endeavors as Carly Simon’s grandiose Film Noir, or Natalie Cole’s elegantly vacant salute to papa Nat, or, most recently and extremely, Rod Stewart’s dully predictable It Had to Be You. Nor does it help that the casual listener discerns little difference in palatability between the admirable originality of, say, a Diana Krall and the poseur vacuity of a Stewart.

But the suggestion that no one beyond the tiny inner circle where Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling and their ilk weave their vocal magic dare explore such material is laughably narrow. It’s not a question of roots or even talent (bad covers happen to good singers all the time), but of sensibility. For proof, simply recall the genre-hopping mastery of Sinatra, Lee, Bennett or Clooney. Does the performer have the requisite experience-life experience, that is, that 100-proof cocktail of heady success and hard knocks? Equally important, does he or she have the integral instincts to appreciate that there’s a difference between a benignly sweet “These Foolish Things” and one that stirs your soul? Joni Mitchell can, and has, done it. (Witness the smoky allure of 2000’s Both Sides Now.) So, too, has fellow Canadian k.d. lang (though with decidedly more sass and just a touch of cunning irony).

Aaron Neville, indisputably one of the most spectacular American voices of the past half-century, is equally dexterous. Neville’s stunning combination of choirboy purity and street-fighter grit has changed, little throughout the 38 years since we all first thrilled to the shimmering fragility of “Tell It Like It Is.” The voice hasn’t changed, but the man himself has. He’s survived a rollercoaster ride of wealth, poverty, drugs, depression and spiritual rebirth, shifting back and forth between R&B, blues and gospel. On his gorgeously crafted Verve debut, Nature Boy, Neville draws on four decades’ worth of triumph and heartache to wrap a dozen standards in bruised silk. When he wades into the reflective self-awareness of “Blame It on My Youth,” wrings vinegar from the cynical “Cry Me a River” and wallows in the misty melancholy of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” you know that buckets of pained truth are being emptied. Neville doesn’t sing these songs; he is these songs. The closest he comes to upbeat is the delicate Oliver! anthem “Who Will Buy?” and even that resonates with the world-weary joy of hard-won maturity. His “Nature Boy” is an ideal marriage of ethereal voice and esoteric lyric; his “Danny Boy” evokes the semisweet longing of a faded dream. And it doesn’t hurt that his intimate quartet-Grady Tate on drums, Ron Carter on bass and Anthony Wilson on guitar, with producer-arranger Rob Mounsey doubling on keyboards and percussion-is augmented with superb guest solos by Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker and Ry Cooder. Even Ronstadt, who helped Neville earn the biggest hit of his career when they teamed for the tender “Don’t Know Much” in ’89, drops by for a velvety “The Very Thought of You.”

Boz Scaggs is only three years younger than Aaron Neville but seems part of an entire other era. Though the Ohio-born Texan’s career dates back to the late ’50s, we remember him best among that classily cerebral cadre of musicians (think Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Al Green, Jackson Browne, Bill Withers) who tunefully rose above the sticky quagmire of mid-’70s rock. His Silk Degrees (1976) was the blueprint for the decade’s finest blues-inspired pop. Scaggs and Neville do share two priceless traits: impeccably good taste and a vocal otherworldliness that’s at once startling and arresting. A quarter century ago, Scaggs’ trademark nasality could occasionally approach inhuman heights (listen anew to the first few bars of “Lowdown” and you’ll swear he’s transiting Bugs Bunny’s space-traveling nemesis Marvin the Martian). The intervening years have softened Scaggs’ sharp edges (as early as the mid-’80s success of “Look What You’ve Done to Me” they’d all but disappeared) without compromising any of his emotional intensity or nondenominational ingenuity. Like Neville, he pours nearly a half-century of shadows and light into his first collection of standards, But Beautiful, self-produced on his own Gray Cat label. Like Neville, he has the wisdom to stick to mellower material better suited to both his range and musical temperament. The difference is that there’s little ache in the 10 exquisite ballads assembled here. Instead, Scaggs infuses each with the sagacity of an elder statesman-a thoroughbred who understands both winning and losing. Borrowing Ronstadt’s lead, he opens with “What’s New?,” charging the whiningly self-indulgent lyric with a breezy nonchalance. Ditto “I Should Care.” Similarly, the dewy innocence of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Bewitched” is underscored with a purring sexual hunger. Scaggs soars highest, though, with a gently uptempo “Never Let Me Go.” Set to a soft samba beat, it is a scintillating salute to the cozy comfort of romantic satisfaction. Hardcore fans might wonder if But Beautiful’s subdued complexion suggests Scaggs’ days of blistering pop (along the lines of “It’s Over,” “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle”) are well behind him. Better, though, to think of this as an enticing new chapter in an already dynamic career.

Though Curtis Stigers lacks the experiential depth of Neville or Scaggs (he is, after all, some two decades younger), he does rival their breadth. Pop didn’t abandon Stigers; he abandoned pop-purposefully exiting the paved freeway of mainstream stardom to follow the treacherously unpredictable jazz path. 2001’s Baby Plays Around ably demonstrated Stigers’ skill (as both singer and saxophonist) at shaping dusky interpretations of such traditional fare as “All the Things You Are” and “Let’s Get Lost.” The bolder, brighter follow-up, Secret Heart, elevated him from the minor leagues to the elite Elling-Connick-Pizzarelli playing field. Now comes the eminently impressive You Inspire Me (out September 9, in case you are reading this in August). Where Neville and Scaggs, who cut their musical teeth during the ’60s and ’70s, embrace Tin Pan Alley tunes of the ’30s and ’40s, Stigers takes the braver step of placing hits of the folk-rock era in jazzier settings. Lennon and McCartney’s ebullient “I Feel Fine,” Lennon’s warm, cuddly “Love,” John Sebastian’s playfully suggestive “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” Joe Jackson’s Caribbean-tinged “Fools in Love” and Dylan’s coolly philosophic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” are the sort of imaginative choices that are sure to incite harsh criticism from the conservative jazz police. They’re also what make You Inspire Me Stigers’ most compelling release yet. Bubbling under Stigers’ distinctively rusty rasp is an obvious love, deep and personal, for these songs. Other tracks, including a buoyant “Blue Skies” and a hazy “Crazy Moon” that rather eerily echoes Willie Nelson, are appropriately lovely. But it’s the grab bag of ’60s and ’70s gems that are straight from Stigers’ heart.

Originally Published