Saxophonist Charles Neville, leader of the Neville Quartet, swung into song last Saturday evening on MainStage at the ’62 Center with the first blue notes of “Round Midnight,” a 1940 jazz standard by Thelonious Monk. Neville, dubbed “The Horn Man,” is known as having the most diverse musical background of the four Neville Brothers. As a teenager in the ’50s, Neville had the opportunity to tour and play with the likes of Ray Charles. His style derives its freshness from his eclectic influences and mastery of a number of musical genres, from R&B and pop to blues, funk and soul. Further enriching his all-encompassing musical style, Neville formed Diversity, a group consisting of classical and jazz musicians. In 1989, his recording of “Healing Chant” on the album Yellow Moon earned him a Grammy award.
Following the slow, winding introduction, the band settled into a walking groove. Neville took the first solo, followed by piano, bass and drums. The opening rhythm of the second number had the flavor of a Bossa Nova, with Neville beginning his solo with an upwards arpeggio followed by a step down from the highest note. This is the signature bebop phrase, a type of jazz featuring fast tempos and chordal passages played by the soloists and complex improvisational solos that allow the musicians expressive freedom. Neville would rearrange well-known tunes to personalize the experience of hearing them, and would also insert tunes, including “Ol’ Man River,” within tunes – a technique that stirred and inspired the audience. Another famous musician to have done so was Charlie Parker, to whom the bebop and modern jazz tradition is indebted, inserted one song into another while improvising as his perception and inspiration commanded.
The audience simmered with enthusiasm, recognizing the first notes of “Take 5,” a piece written in 1959. The piece was a precedent for modern jazz, which came into full bloom in the early ’60s. Taking up the agile, higher-pitched alto saxophone, Neville and his band transformed the beloved jazz standard into something personal and unique. The pianist played a bounding accompaniment in four instead of five, inviting another aspect of bebop into the mix – the juxtaposition of one count in the melody section over another in the rhythm section.
Following this exhilarating introduction, Neville invited the singer Julia Freeman to the stage. A velvety rendition of “Cry Me a River” followed. The band sensitively accompanied Friedman, picking up the threads of song with lyrical solos while the voice rested. Freeman’s moving and expressive voice was suited to the songful and melancholic “Georgia on My Mind.” At certain points, she surprised the audience with a jocular but skilled whistling solo, and at other times she challenged the prowess of the horn with a scat-singing solo, in musical exchanges with Neville’s saxophone. Neville took a solo in the middle of each lyrical number, with the soothing, nasal sound of the tenor saxophone.
The band proceeded to play a charming version of Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” written in the ’30s, with the enticing, sweet voice of the soloist taking the lead. After this, the band returned on its own to play fast and funky numbers, trading fours. Neville would play a short phrase, then the pianist would respond with a short phrase of his own. The musical conversation continued as the band played “Take the A Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn, a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
In the second half of the concert, Freeman returned to sing “Nearness of You,” a popular song of the late ’30s, written by pianist Hoagy Carmichael. Her voice soared from the highest to the lowest notes of the song, conveying the unique message of love in each song. Harold Arlen’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” which followed, was popularized by Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole 10 years after its 1933 release. The exemplary musical communication between the singer and the band became illuminated with Johnny Green’s 1930 “Body and Soul.” With each piece, the improvisations became more extensive; scat-singing, Freeman traded fours with the drummer in her parting number, “Rosetta.”
The band took over to play a few other energetic numbers before closing the concert. After hearing him perform a variety of different genres of music, I was impressed with how Neville shone with enthusiasm. Drawing from the array of experiences he gained touring and working with a variety of talented musicians, Neville’s performance proved to be as diverse as it was exceptional.