Add the name of Aaron Neville to the growing number of pop/rock artists moonlighting in the hallowed terrain of the Great American Songbook. Following in the steps of defectors Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Curtis Stigers and Kenny Rankin, Neville is flirting with the likes of composers Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and the Gershwins, and the transition appears to be a smooth one for the rangy crooner.
Celebrating the release of his new Verve CD, “Nature Boy — The Standards Album” with a rare club appearance at Gotham’s Birdland, the Grammy-winning vocalist put his silky stamp on a song, nurturing it with his cushiony falsetto. His musical phrasing has a searching flexibility that toys generously with a melody, but he is careful not to soil its innate structure.
Neville clearly has romance on his mind, and the swooning women in the aud appeared to love it. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “These Foolish Things” conjured up romantic fulfillment and disillusionment.
Going up on the lyrics to Oscar Levant’s “Blame It on My Youth,” the singer was comfortably rescued by beautiful horn interlude by Alex Sipiagin. His muted trumpet turn on “In the Still of the Night” boasted the kind of tight, wistful strains one associates with the young Miles Davis.
Neville took some buoyantly breezy uptempo turns with “Summertime” and “Work Song.” The latter was heightened by a frisky tenor sax solo by brother Charles Neville.
“Nature Boy,” a liturgical road song by eccentric hippie Eden Ahbez, has been surfacing frequently on the cabaret circuit, and Neville laced his version with a distinctive dark reverence.
Guest on opening night was Lizz Wright, who joined the balladeer for a plaintively direct and unfussy duet on Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.” The ballad was sublimely accented by Sipiagin’s flugelhorn solo.
Neville has the supportive luxury of a fine jazz ensemble, as he did on the lushly flavored new CD. Bassist John Patitucci cut loose for a romping solo on “Who Will Buy?” with drummer Lewis Nash dropping some explosive accents. The opener was “Moanin'” — a veritable feast for all the cats in the band.