Thursday, April 26, marked the passing of my good friend Charles Neville. Here is the remarkable piece “Healing Chant”, featuring Charles on soprano sax, for which the Neville Brothers won a Grammy in 1989:
I call Charles my good friend, even though it’s hardly as if we were ever really that close – at least in the conventional sense. It’s only that I felt a strong affinity for him, a deep connection, and could always sense that he could feel something along those lines too. Our friendship was something which was just there, and enduring, however much or little actual conversation ever took place.
Recently I was chatting with one of the many friends Charles and I had in common. We were talking about regrets. I found myself bemoaning the fact that I’d fallen so short in getting to know Charles any better, in spending more time with him. Then I realized, and said, that, if Charles were around today, he’d say something along the lines of, “It’s OK. We had what we had. We connected. We understood each other. That’s what’s important. More than time spent, or ‘knowing someone well…'”
I think this all has to do with the nature of Charles Neville – that he was, in a sense, everybody’s friend. After all, this was a person who once said, quoting the Dalai Lama, “Loving kindness is my religion.”
As to the actual music of “Healing Chant”: it won the Grammy Award that year for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” – I think because this was the only category it could even vaguely be shoehorned into. It could just as easily be called Jazz, World Music, West African, New Orleans Funk, or any number of other things – or combinations of things…
Students of the creative process will be interested to hear something about the genesis of “Healing Chant”. The soprano sax line was freely improvised by Charles over an already-recorded background, in what he – and everyone else present that day – thought was just a kind of “practice run”. But then, once he’d finished, what he’d done was so good – so exquisite, so sensitive, so sublime – that they decided they just had to keep it.
Students of music will probably want to note how Charles’s melodic phrases tend to end on some pretty extraordinary “spots” – hardly what one would expect from what’s come before – thus stretching the otherwise static harmony into a myriad of different directions and implications. Also noteworthy is Charles’s frequent use of whole tone scales – hardly something one would expect to find in the “pop” field (if indeed this music really belongs in the “pop” field at all…) – giving his long spooling-out melody a mysterious floating quality. Further, Charles makes truly masterful use of silence – of the pauses and spaces between phrases – in effect “playing the silence”* as much as the tones (and, as Miles Davis once said, “…sometimes those silences can get pretty loud…”).
The graphics accompanying this recording are also remarkable: an orange-gold moon transforms itself gradually into black and silver, then into a sunburst, a rose, drum-heads, then back into the moon – but a different moon than before.
All of which is appropriate on a whole ‘nother level, since Charles was a longtime practicing Buddhist. And this may be something of a tangent, but I feel it bears mentioning here that Charles was also someone who ultimately conquered a highly recalcitrant addiction (to heroin), a master of Tai Chi, a painter (plus drawings, too!), and a very gifted and wryly humorous raconteur (I would read his autobiography, if such a thing ever came out, in a New York minute…).
The music of the Neville Brothers has been described as a fusion of “…rhythm and blues, gospel, doo-wop, rock, blues, soul, jazz, funk and New Orleans’s own parade and Mardi Gras rhythms, in songs that mingled a party spirit with social consciousness…” (Jon Pareles’s obituary for Charles in the New York Times). Within this amalgamation of various sounds Charles supplied much of the jazz element, plus a center of calmness and serenity.
But Charles also worked on a good many side projects of his own –
One of which I remember in particular was a band he called Diversity, which I was fortunate enough to see and hear one afternoon at the NOJHF (this would have been sometime during the early Eighties, if memory serves…). And Diversity certainly lived up to its name, including both jazz and classical players, black and white, men and women. The rhythm section of Diversity consisted of the normal bass and drums, as you’d find in most Jazz bands, but, instead of a piano, Diversity had a harpist (I think this was the classical player Rachel Van Voorhees…) and a steel drummer (Gregory Boyd?), who were somehow able to meld their two highly diverse instruments into one sound. Superimposed on that foundation was a front line of Charles doubling on alto and soprano saxophones, a trumpet player, and a violinist – this last thus giving the nod both to classical music and to western swing. The trumpet player was a study in herself: young woman whose name escapes me, wearing a short black tight miniskirt and mid-calf boots, who drove the crowd wild with the hotness of her playing (though I think bare knees and thighs, deployed in highly sensuous – and very sexy – dance moves as she played, may have had something to do with that too…).
Also, I would be thoroughly remiss if I left out Charles’s involvement with the Jazz Poetry Group (JPG) during the late Seventies. The JPG was, as I understand it, the brainchild of bassist Ramsey McLean (also a composer, songwriter, poet, and novelist), and featured: Ramsey on bass, Charles on saxophones (mostly alto); Ron Cuccia (“The Ezra Pound of the Neutral Ground†”), speaking/reading his own poetry; Leigh (“Little Queenie”) Harris, (sung) vocals; John Magnie, piano; and Ricky Sebastian, drums. They put out only one album – produced, as I recall, by the legendary Cosimo Matassa – which they recorded over two nights at the Contemporary Arts Center in front of live audiences. I was lucky enough to be in attendance on one of those concerts, and it was one of the most amazing Jazz performances I’ve ever heard. Looking back, I think this was because everyone was young and in their most prime form, full of hope for the future, pushing the limits while also drawing extensively on many long deep traditions. There was also the push-pull of the deeply spoken/intoned poetry – at times pretty sombre – in the male voice, with the high spritely lyrical singing of the female voice, and the activation of both the sensual and the imaginative aesthetic centers by the conjunction of music with poetry. And to make things even more interesting, the music included a whole lot of original compositions of the highest quality; I remember especially a piece by Ramsey McLean – “Requiem for the Living”, written just after the death of his father – over which Ron Cuccia read a poem about his own visions of horses. Sadly though, the JPG faded away shortly after that, their album seems to have become exceedingly rare, and information about them very hard to come by. The only presence of the JPG on YouTube is the one single they released – the song “My Darlin’ New Orleans” (words: Cuccia; music: Neville/McLean) – which is really worth a listen, since it captures something of the delight and exuberance of New Orleans during the Seventies and features a short but sweet solo by Charles; hear it here.
Yet another project Charles was involved with fairly late in his life, and which I wish I could have heard, is that he played in a band led by avant garde veteran Archie Shepp on a tour of North Africa. Oh to have been privileged to listen to even just one set of such music…
For more information on Charles Neville, including transcripts of some of his stories, a live recording of “Healing Chant”, and a discussion of Charles’s final album, Safe in Buddha’s Palm, click on this page of the website for Gwen Thompkins’s radio program Music Inside Out. Also, an hour-log interview, vividly showcasing Charles’s considerable talents as a raconteur and his wry sense of humor, can be accessed by clicking on the orange arrow just below the title (this interview also contains a more detailed account, told by Charles himself, of the of how “Healing Chant” came about…). Finally, for those who wish to pursue deeper listening, there’s also a link to a playlist of all the music discussed in the interview.
For more recordings and videos by or featuring Charles Neville on YouTube, click here.
(Photo credit: Matt Anderson)
* Props to Andrea Skinner, whom many of the BB readership may remember with great fondness, for articulating this concept for me…
† “Neutral ground” is the term for “median strip” in the language of the New Orleanians.