It's no surprise to hear Aaron Neville sing gospel classics on the new
I Know I've Been Changed
. It's the third gospel album in his long career, and he's always been known as the spiritual member of New Orleans' famous Neville Brothers, the one with the voice that more often than not gets called "angelic."
What is surprising, though, is how earthy and vibrant the record sounds, with none of the gloss that has sometimes marred his prior releases. Produced by Joe Henry, the album reunites Neville with the great pianist Allen Toussaint, who produced Neville's first single, "Over You," 50 years ago.
Recorded live in the studio with a stripped-down band, I Know I've Been Changed challenged Neville in several ways, he says.
"This is a different approach than I usually take doing albums," Neville says, the day after playing a homecoming show in New Orleans. "A lot of the songs are rawer, and I just did them in my natural voice, just threw in some falsetto ad-libs here and there. A lot of times, I sing in high voice, you know."
On "Meetin' at the Building," Neville barely touches his upper register, although his voice still possesses his signature melisma. He and Toussaint turn "You've Got to Move" into a humorous New Orleans strut, and "I Am a Pilgrim" and "I'm So Glad" become tributes to Sam Cooke, one of Neville's boyhood idols. The title track pays homage to the Staple Singers, although Neville has yet to hear Mavis Staples' recent work, the similarly revelatory You Are Not Alone ("I've heard about it; I need to get it").
Some gospel songs will be in the set when Neville brings his Christmas show to the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on Saturday, with a quintet that includes his brother Charles on saxophone.
"We do a smorgasbord of music," Neville says. "I have so many different genres that I do; I don't do just one type. We start off with old stuff; we do pop, rock, R&B, doo-wop, gospel, Christmas, jazz - you name it."
Neville says he has little difficulty switching among genres.
"I just sing, you know. Each song is special and has its own feeling and its own meaning. I just take them one at a time."