With the look of a hardened longshoreman and the voice of an angel, Aaron Neville has been confounding music lovers since the 1960s.
He forged a pop career with his soulful voice, first breaking onto the national scene with the pop ballad "Tell It Like It IS" in 1966 and often teaming with his three brothers, Art, Charles and Cyrille -- better known as the Neville Brothers -- on a string of successful albums.
This New Orleans native son has won public acclaim -- and four Grammys - in the pop and country fields, recording a dozen solo albums through the years in music genres including gospel, pop, funk, soul, R&B and country.
So with all that experience and versatility under his belt, Neville, 62, felt at ease crossing into the jazz realm for a strong and intimate standards project. His newest album, "Nature Boy," was released late this summer on the Verve jazz label.
Neville worked as a longshoreman, in fact, to support his family before and during the early years of his musical career. He sports a distinctive, prison-like cross tattoo on his left cheek. And it is not surprising to learn that he spent some time behind bars in 1959 for car theft. Yet those days are a lifetime behind this burly, soft-spoken artist.
The jazz standards project, he said, was the idea of his saxophone-playing brother Charles, who plays most consistently in the jazz realm. Charles Neville is aboard the "Nature Boy" project but played on only one track, the ballad "Since I Fell For You."
The session was produced by keyboardist Rob Mounsey, who brought in two jazz heavyweights, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, for most of the horn work. Other sidemen providing a superb jazz cushion for Neville on this project include drummer Grady Tate, bassist Ron Carter, percussionist Bashiri Johnson and guitarists Ry Cooder and Anthony Wilson.
Neville said much of the project inspiration came from the musical legacy of late singer Ella Fitzgerald.
"I had to sing 'Our Love is Here to Stay' with Ella ringing in my ear. Ella's voice has haunted me for years. Ella was an instrument," Neville said. "That's what I was aiming for in 'Nature Boy' - using my voice as a jazz instrument, letting that free jazz feeling flow through me."
He also tackles "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Cry Me a River," Since I Fell for You," "Danny Boy," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blame it on My Youth," "Summertime" and "In the Still of the Night."
"To be singing these chestnuts brings me back to my parents," Neville said. "These were the songs they danced to. These were a few of the songs of my youth. I always say that my voice is a mixture of the strength and wisdom of my father, the love and tenderness of my mother, and the innocence of my childhood."
In 1989, singer Linda Ronstadt featured Neville on her "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind" project, which resulted in their pop duet hit, "Don't Know Much." She went on to co-produce Neville's 1991 solo comeback album, "Warm Your Heart."
It should be no surprise that Ronstadt makes a cameo appearance on "Nature Boy" with a duet version of "The Very Thought of You."
"There's no one I'd rather sing with," Neville said. "Of all the lady singers out there, she is in a category of her own. Linda crosses over to any material that strikes her fancy. I love how we blend."
There is no contemporary material here, although Neville makes each sound fresh and creative.
"In singing these standards -- these romantic songs that get prettier with each passing year -- I feel more than an earthly love," Neville said. "I feel the force of God, the spirit of all love."