There are singers who seize your attention by their acute interpretation of the narrative in a song’s lyrics, but that’s never been Aaron Neville’s calling card. Neville is a soother, par excellence, with a buffered tone that generally flutters just below falsetto, moving through a song like a meandering stream of holy water, baptizing the listener into audio relaxation. The lyrics barely matter: Neville could be singing a hymn, an aria, Gershwin, or the Schenectady phone book without a marked change in his allure.
Indeed, since he broke through with the plaintive ballad, “Tell It Like It Is” back in 1966 (still the biggest hit of his career), Neville, now 68, has sung standards, gospel, country-western, and r&b, successfully collaborated with Linda Ronstadt and provided a gentle vocal countercurrent to the Crescent City funk laid down by his siblings and their cohorts in the Neville Brothers. (At least one brother, saxophonist Charles Neville, will be part of Aaron’s quintet at the Dakota.) But at root he is a soul singer, with all the spiritual, genre, and healing meanings conveyed in that word.
Rarely has the sobriquet “gentle giant” been so appropriate, for he is a barrel-chested behemoth with biceps the size of most people’s thighs, and an angry-looking, hairy discoloration over one eye; which makes it all the more remarkable when the dulcet, high-pitched warble leaves his mouth. Saved by St. Jude from a life of crime and addiction, compassion suffuses his every phrase, opting for assurance regardless of context. On his 2003 release, “Believe,” he tackled a pair of songs back-to-back renowned for their potential stridency — Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” — and, even as a robust horn section blew, swaddled both songs in lush vocal velvet.
Aaron Neville Quintet featuring Charles Neville at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 19 and 20, 7 p.m., tickets $25-$80.