charles neville, 1938-2018

Charles Neville.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Neville Brothers were monsters – four New Orleans siblings that could do it all. Soul, funk, pop, jazz, you name it. If it had a groove worth exploring, the Nevilles could make it their own. Brothers Charles was probably the most overlooked of the four, but his saxophone work was as integral to the Nevilles’ ensemble sound as Art’s funky keyboard lines, Aaron’s otherworldly vocals and Cyril’s soul crusader stage presence.

Charles Neville died at age 79 earlier today after battling pancreatic cancer.

The saxophonist lived several lives before the Neville Brothers’ commanding Crescent City music took firm hold of audiences outside of New Orleans during the 1980s. Some of those lives circled around addiction and incarceration at the dawn of the ‘60s but bloomed into the gradual establishment of a lasting music career as the decade progressed.

The Neville Brothers grew out of the famed Mardi Gras Indian troupe known as The Wild Tchoupitoulas. But it was with the siblings’ second album, 1981’s “Fiyo on the Bayou,” that their sound came to a boil. The album was both a career summary and career launch, touching on Art’s funk heritage with The Meters, Aaron’s vintage pop sentiments and the New Orleans street music Cyril turned into a vital new hybrid.

For many, though, 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced “Yellow Moon,” the Nevilles’ finest recorded hour, resonated most. Lanois was the producer-of-the-moment at the time, having piloted mega-platinum albums for U2 and Peter Gabriel. What he brought to the Nevilles was a subtle ambience that enhanced the already fervent spiritual cast of the siblings’ music. As a result, the Cyril-led “Sister Rosa” became a plain speaking social anthem and the Aaron-fueled take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” evolved into a jazz meditation. Curiously, it was the predominantly instrumental “Healing Chant,” dominated by Charles’ snake charming soprano sax playing, that earned the Nevilles the first of their three career Grammys.

Luckily, the Nevilles played Lexington and Louisville frequently through the years. Aaron was the celebrity, the audience focal point. But the group’s music was always a family affair, a textured groove that cooked into a wild gumbo that no band in or out of New Orleans could match. That recipe would never have that sounded that distinct had Brothers Charles not been adding his unassuming but profoundly flavorful touch. He made the Fiyo burn all the more brilliantly.



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