To quote the disc notes, his career has spanned over four decades, fourteen Neville Brothers and eleven solo Grammy® award-winning albums, so when I got the chance to interview the legendary Aaron Neville and review ‘Believe’, his second DVD-Audio release, I jumped at the chance.
Both ‘Believe’ and ‘Devotion’, his first DVD-Audio title, were strongly influenced by Aaron’s upbringing and faith, although the life of a black man in New Orleans, where he is still based, has become easier in recent years. “It’s cool in New Orleans today, ” Aaron told me, “There were times when it wasn’t this way and I’m always looking for it to get a little cooler.” A prolific live performer, Aaron has played with the some of the great Dixieland jazz artists; “I have done many shows over the years at Preservation Hall. I’ve had the good fortune of playing with guys like Paul Babaran Danny Barker and Joe Simon along the way.”
It would be true to say that Neville’s current music has obvious religious leanings, but it’s a mistake to think that ‘Believe’ is an album that preaches to the listener. I’m not the biggest fan of contemporary ‘sacred’ music, artists such as Cindy Morgan go just about far enough, but this is more a collection of up-beat and thoughtful, inspirational songs. “I think ‘Believe’ is more of a spiritual album. I think everyone can find something in these songs they can relate to. The message is about having faith and direction.”
The music chosen has an obvious progression; the first half of the disc is an uplifting mixture of gospel and jazz with rock overtones, whereas from ‘Ave Maria’ onwards, the songs become more introspective and down-beat. The album closes with a bonus track entitled ‘With God on our Side’, which features solo voice and a sombre, distant synthesised chord accompaniment that broaches the subject of war and its futility, asking, “…what were we fighting for?” There are the cool vibes of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ with its catchy rhythms and hooks and ‘big’ tracks such as ‘Oh Happy Day’, which contrast against emotive classics like ‘Amazing Grace’.
“These songs have always been with me. They have helped me through some rough times. When I felt like I had nothing, I still had these songs,” Aaron explained.
I only have reservations about his interpretation of one track, ‘Ave Maria’, set here to the music of Schubert, as I’m not really sure the Latin verse suits Neville’s vocal style. For a non-classical recording I still prefer Elaine Paige’s 1982 version, set to the music of Gounod and arranged by Mike Batt, which appeared on her 1986 album ‘Christmas’, but that is the only criticism I can possibly level at the incredible vocal performances upon the disc.
Silverline’s version of ‘Believe’ was released on January 28th, the same day as the EMI Gospel CD. As it represents Aaron’s second multi-channel DVD-Audio release, I asked what originally attracted him to music in surround? “Mark Mazzetti brought the idea to me when I recorded ‘Devotion’. Mark had worked with me on ‘To Make Me Who I Am’. I was already putting ‘Devotion’ out, so creating a DVD-Audio version didn’t really require much. It was mainly just an alternate mix. All I have to do is sing my songs. So there’s really no difference in the process for me. It’s the mix that makes the surround, and I left that to Gary Lux who mixed both the stereo and 5.1 mixes.”
This being a brand-spanking new recording, the fidelity of the 96kHz 24-bit MLP surround mix is excellent. Especially noticeable is the comprehensible diction of the backing singers, whose phrases can be clearly discerned regardless of their soundstage placement. Neville’s voice has a smooth and mellow quality and there are no signs of the nasal leanings that I’ve heard on some of his previous solo CDs, perhaps as a result of the higher resolution format. Cymbals and drums also have a tangible quality without being hard-edged or fizzy while the bass lines are remarkably musical, given the assistance of a competent (non-booming) subwoofer.
It’s easy to highlight particular strengths – such as the outstanding dynamic punch of the ‘Jesus, Jesus Jesus’ bass-line, especially effective when partnered by the accompanying horn section, and the subtle brushed snare/horn combination of ‘If I Had a Hammer’ – and nigh-on impossible to spot presentation weaknesses.
All elements of the mix are beautifully balanced, particularly the blend of Aaron’s vocals, which demonstrate his wide tonal range and emotive delivery, with the remainder of the disc’s musicians.
It’s my impression that the ‘Believe’ surround mix, created by Gary Lux and Mark Mazzetti, is a little more adventurous than that of ‘Devotion’, but still wholly appropriate for the music. The horn section is spread out along the sides of the listening room while subtle percussion elements and backing vocalists are steered to the rears, thereby adding creative emphasis to the front channel content. “It’s a 360-degree sound experience. Like you’re in the middle of the band. A lot of people have the technology to play the format, so why not put it out there. It sounds great,” Neville enthused.
Aaron’s vocals are presented as a phantom front L/R image with moderate centre ‘fill’, a conscious decision on the part of the mixing engineers. While I personally prefer the centre to be used more aggressively, the scheme works particularly well here and does not affect the timbre or presence of Neville’s voice, as has been the case with some multi-channel creations. When deciding upon channel usage, Aaron explains that he placed the creative initiative for the surround version in the hands of Gary Lux. “He did the initial mixes and we would all listen and give feedback. It was the same process for ‘Devotion’ and ‘Believe’. We would go with what we all thought sounded best.”
The more I listened, the more I began to appreciate that while Gary and Mark’s mix might appear fairly straightforward on the face of things, it’s actually deceptively intricate. Instruments are layered, with the aid of the surround channels, to produce a soundstage with great depth and without the presentation being overly surround-orientated. One of the best examples is ‘If I Had a Hammer’ where all elements remain at a constant level but are perfectly balanced throughout, which is no mean feat considering they comprise Neville’s smoky vocals, punchy horns, dynamic bass, subtle drums and enveloping backing vocals, all of which have very different characters.
Unfortunately, as is the case with all the 5.1 Entertainment titles I’ve encountered to date, the disc does not have a dedicated stereo track, therefore two-channel listeners will be at the mercy of the downmix capabilities of their own particular player. However, the surround mix is so good, so appropriate, that given the choice it would be a travesty to listen to anything else.
Having said that, Aaron has only just been equipped with his own home surround system, “I really like listening to music in my car. When I record something, I’ll take a drive and just listen. The 5.1 people gave me a system for my home. I don’t know what kind it is, but it sounds nice.”
While we were on the subject, I enquired if Aaron had heard many DVD-Audio discs, such as ‘What’s New’ a recent re-release from Linda Ronstadt, an artist he has collaborated with in the past, including on the much-loved ‘Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind’. “I always look forward to singing with Linda. I have not heard the DVD-Audio of ‘What’s New’. I need to check that out. I’m not sure if ‘Cry Like A Rainstorm’ will be released on DVD-Audio. It would be a great mix though.”
The highlight in terms of supplementary material is a five-minute video sequence that features interviews with Barry Beckett (producer) and son Ivan Neville, an artist in his own right and behind-the-scenes session footage from the recordings of ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Amazing Grace’, the two vocal tracks captured by Gary Lux at Soundcastle Studios. There are liner notes for each selection that give a brief history of each song and the reason for its inclusion upon the album and a complete set of lyrics. Rounding out the bonus menus are a brief DVD-Audio primer, a loudspeaker set-up check and a full set of disc credits that include all the musicians featured on each track.
While Aaron appreciates the potential of disc extras, his mind is still clearly focussed on the performance. “The extras are a nice bonus feature, but the main incentive is the musical experience. I think that’s what most people will be looking for out of the DVD-Audio format.”
To conclude: what we have here is an outstanding disc from Silverline (clearly one of their best yet) that showcases the amazing talents of one of America’s most distinctive vocalists. Both the fidelity and surround mix are straight out of the top drawer and the performance exemplary. “These songs are very near to me and to have them to listen to in this format is really great,” Aaron told me, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.