Crescent City Singer Charmaine Neville Struts Soulful Stuff at Springfield’s New Festival

Jul 30, 2014

Neville's soulful singing and joyful stage persona have made her the toast of the town, not just in her beloved New Orleans, but around the world.

Elated to be alive and once again playing at the top of her game after a debilitating, three-year struggle with a life-threatening brain condition, the whirlwind New Orleans singer/dancer and entertainer Charmaine Neville is looking forward to performing with her famous father, saxophonist Charles Neville, on August 9 at the first Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival in downtown Springfield’s historic Court Square.

Along with Charmaine and Charles Neville, the soulful saxophonist for the celebrated Neville Brothers, the free, outdoor festival, which runs from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, features a homecoming welcome for the Springfield-born, world-celebrated alto saxophonist Phil Woods. An NEA Jazz Master and an all-time great saxophonist, Woods sits-in with the Greg Caputo Big Band. 

Chuchito Valdes.
Credit Kristin Neville

Other headliners include the phenomenal, young saxophonist/singer Grace Kelly who performs with the Alex Snydman Trio, and the Havana-born, virtuoso pianist Jesus “Chuchito” Valdes, Jr., leading his quartet. A third generation piano powerhouse, Chuchito is the son of Afro-Cuban jazz keyboard kingpin Chucho Valdes and grandson of Bebo Valdes, two of Cuba’s legendary piano patriarchs.

Charmaine Neville, 58, is fit and ready, she said, to serve Springfield a red-hot, Crescent City dish of festive funk and fun. “I feel wonderful,” she said by phone from her home in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. “It will be fabulous to work with my father again. I’ve been back to performing over the last year or so.”

Bouncing back dramatically from her severe illness, the distinguished distaff member of the male-dominated Neville family dynasty has been re-energizing her high-energy, soul-drenched style. Marinated in the rich New Orleans tradition, it mixes a saucy gumbo of blues, jazz, funk, R&B and country with her lively dancing and rollicking sense of humor. Her spirited comedic side is an endearing, wacky blend of comic personas ranging from Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong to Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball.    

A charismatic performer well-schooled in Crescent City song and stage-craft, Neville has earned her success not by cashing in on her famous surname, but through her own oversize talent, inspiration and perspiration, all of which makes her an explosive entertainment package. Years ago, she deliberately staked out her own musical and show biz identity, rather than riding someone’s coattails as the daughter and niece of the world-famous Neville Brothers. Her soulful singing and joyful stage persona have made her the toast of the town, not just in her beloved New Orleans, but around the world.

Charmaine Neville performs at the Freret Street Festival in 2014.
Credit Creative Commons

Before Neville's illness, her high-octane shows had lit up venues everywhere from Auckland to Zurich. At home, she was celebrated for stunning performances everywhere in the Big Easy, from the intimate Snug Harbor, a famously cozy jazz bistro and eatery, to the mega-spectacle of The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. 

As her often misdiagnosed, enigmatic illness cast a progressively darker shadow over every aspect of her life, she initially feared she would lose her voice, and then, most terrifyingly, her life. “The muscles in my throat weren’t working,” she said. “It was very scary.”

"I don't think of myself as any kind of royalty. I'm just another musician living in New Orleans."
Charmaine Neville

A natural-born entertainer, Neville was singing in church with attention-seizing inspiration and beauty when she just a toddler. At nine, in one of the greatest summit meetings of her early life, the child prodigy happened to be sitting in the stands at a rodeo in Texas when the legendary country singer Kitty Wells picked her out of the crowd and asked her to come up on stage and sing a song with her.

“I sang one of Kitty’s songs, ‘Once a Day,’” Neville said. “I knew the words, but not the meaning. After the set, Kitty gave me $50.00, the first money I ever got for doing a show. I thought I was rich.”

As far back as Neville can remember, she always wanted to sing, even though she has always suffered from performance anxiety, which disappears as she immerses herself totally in a show. "Even when I was very ill," she said, "the worst part of the whole thing for me was not being able to get up on the stage. I couldn’t walk, and the only thing I could do was to be carried up on stage. It feels fabulous to be on stage again."

While Neville can be funny and irreverent, she is modest about her own accomplishments and her blood-tie to one of New Orleans’ royal families. "I don’t think of myself as any kind of royalty," she said. "I’m just another musician living in New Orleans." While she’s proud to be associated with such musicians as her beloved uncles and father, she knows the Neville name was, early on, a hurdle she had to overcome by proving her own individual worth.

Charmaine and Charles Neville
Credit Kristin Neville

"When I was very young and just starting out," Neville said, "[the Neville name] was kind of a hindrance. People would associate me with the name, and nothing else, until they learned who I truly was. Once I showed them my true identity, it was no longer a problem."

Along with her free spirit, resilience has been a key element in Neville's character. During the disastrous flood caused by Katrina, her own home was devastated by the hurricane. She was among the volunteers out on a flatboat on the choppy waters, helping rescue neighbors in her beloved Ninth Ward. Later, according to press reports, she commandeered a transit bus to save and transport storm refugees.

Now back in the groove, Neville said she has one goal to attain when her father sits in with her band, and the two generations of Nevilles bring a taste of New Orleans to Springfield. "I just want everybody to sit back and enjoy, and just let the good times roll," she said.

The festival, which is held rain or shine, is produced by Blues to Green, a non-profit organization led by Kristin Neville, wife of Charles Neville. The organization’s mission is to use music and art to celebrate community and culture, and to raise awareness of social and environmental issues. Local restaurants will offer a variety of ethnic cuisine in food booths, and works by local and regional artists and artisans will be on sale.

Celebrating the cultural district in Springfield, the newly-minted festival follows in the footsteps of the defunct Hoop City Jazz and Arts Festival, which had its last run in 2010. It’s been described as “losing its momentum” after the 2011 tornado struck Springfield and damaged Court Square.

Kristin Neville lives in the Pioneer Valley with her husband Charles. She said the festival will be an annual event. Information: springfieldjazzfest.com.    

Renee Rosnes Reigns    

As one of the crown jewels of this summer’s Monday Night Jazz in Bushnell Park, pianist Renee Rosnes leads her all-star quartet at 7:30 pm on Monday, August 4, in the Hartford Jazz Society’s admission-free series in the downtown Hartford park. 

Renee Rosnes.
Credit John Abbott

Rosnes, a premier pianist, leads her classy chamber group featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Carl Allen. Married to Bill Charlap, a fellow piano great, Rosnes is one of Canada’s ultra-deluxe cultural exports to America and the international jazz community. Singer/songwriter N’dea Lloyd opens the festivities at 6:00 pm.

Rosnes returns to Connecticut to perform with tenor titan Jimmy Greene as he leads his quartet at 3:45 pm on August 10 at The Litchfield Jazz Festival on the Goshen Fairgrounds, Goshen.

An excellent pairing of a peerless pianist and a superb saxophonist, it’s a highlight for the  star-studded, three-day festival whose lineup also features Cecile McLorin Salvant, Cyrus Chestnut, Claudio Roditi, Kirk Whalum, Mike Stern and Jane Bunnett, among others. Information: litchfieldjazzfest.com and (860) 361-6285.

Buttonwood’s Duo Coup

Always welcoming rising, new talent, Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree scores yet another coup at 8:00 pm on Friday, August 1, as it presents The Yabuno Ettun Project, a young, dynamic duo featuring the bright, interactive improvisations of the fluid Japanese pianist Haruka Yabuno and the big-toned Israeli double bassist Ehud Ettun.

With good reason, the swinging, simpatico duo will celebrate the release of its new, imaginative debut CD, BiPolar. The pair describe their quick-witted, conversational discourse as being “on the line between classical and jazz with a mixture of Baroque aesthetics and contemporary jazz.” Admission: $10.00. Information: (860) 347-4957.

The Miraculous Holmes Brothers

The Holmes Brothers.
Credit Mary Ellen Mark

With amazing grace, The Holmes Brothers miraculously blend American roots music into the most rapturous, intoxicating brews of blues, gospel, soul, R&B, rock, funk and country, creating the most fervent, soul-stirring ecumenical marriages of the spiritual and the secular, the earthly and the celestial, all often accomplished in one single, stunning song. 

With their soaring thee-part, heavenly harmonies, rocking rhythms and, apparently, divinely inspired piano/keyboard, bass and guitar licks, the awesome threesome make a wholly joyful noise onto their congregation as they celebrate the release of their new CD, Brotherhood, at 7:00 pm on Friday, August 1, at the Iron Horse, Northampton, Massachusetts. Tickets: $15.00 advance; $20.00 door. Information: (413) 586-8686.

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