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Art Neville performs with The Funky Meters in Las Vegas in 2015. (Erik Kabik Photography/MediaPunch/AP)

Art and music

Jazz Fest box set shows the late Art Neville’s continuing influence

On July 22, seven months after he announced his retirement, the New Orleans keyboardist and singer Art Neville died. He was 81. 

His career spanned six decades and includes accomplishments that reverberate to this day. It’s a 17-year-old Neville, for instance, singing lead on the Hawketts’ perennial New Orleans favorite “Mardi Gras Mambo.” And the albums that he recorded as a member of the Meters beginning in 1969 defined French Quarter funk and contained songs that with the dawning of hip-hop would be sampled hundreds of times. 

The Meters broke up in 1977 but not before touring with the Rolling Stones and applying their inimitable syncopation to recordings by LaBelle, Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Allen Toussaint, and Lee Dorsey. Shortly thereafter, Art and his three younger brothers Charles, Aaron, and Cyril (a Meter himself during that group’s latter years) began performing and recording as the Neville Brothers. 

In 1989, with a string of stylistically inconsistent and commercially unsuccessful releases on a series of major and minor labels behind them, the Nevilles hooked up with the producer Daniel Lanois to record Yellow Moon, a thematically and aurally cohesive collection of originals and covers that would establish them as a major act. Its combination of infectious New Orleans grooves, syncretic spiritual themes, and boilerplate social protest charted the course that the brothers would follow both in the studio and onstage until Charles’ 2018 death. 

But perhaps the most significant project in which the eldest Neville participated was the one that in 1976 brought all four Neville brothers together in the studio for the first time—the critically acclaimed and indisputably unique Wild Tchoupitoulas

Named for a Mardi Gras Indian tribe whose “big chief” was the Nevilles’ uncle George Landry, Wild Tchoupitoulas featured hooky chants rife with good-natured our-tribe-is-better-than-your-tribe boasting and nonsense syllables such as “Jock-a-mo feena hay” and “Mighty kootie fiyo.” When the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry in 2012, the occasion marked one of the few times in recent history that a decision associated—if only tangentially—with the U.S. Congress facilitated rather than impeded the pursuit of happiness.

Proof of the continuing influence of Art Neville in general and the Wild Tchoupitoulas album in particular can be found throughout Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Smithsonian Folkways), a five-disc, decades-spanning, 53-track box recently released to celebrate the 50th go-round of an event that has become an annual Crescent City rite of spring second only to Mardi Gras itself.  

The box includes three Wild Tchoupitoulas tracks: “Indian Red” (Disc 1, the Golden Eagles), “Big Chief Got the Golden Crown” (Disc 2, the White Eagles), and “Brother John” (Disc 2, the Dixie Cups). And if the “Tchoupitoulas-ness” of the first two is diminished by their being traditional, Tchoupitoulas-antedating songs, the third is a bona fide Cyril Neville original.

Art himself appears three times: first as a Neville Brother (on a rather underwhelming “Yellow Moon”), second as a Funky Meter (heating up “Fire [sic] on the Bayou”), and third as a Neville Brother again (on “Amazing Grace/One Love”). 

That last performance, incidentally, isn’t Jazz Fest’s only gospel number. Disc 3 contains four in a row, highlighted by Irma Thomas’ impassioned “Old Rugged Cross” and the late Raymond Myles’ frenzied take on Andraé Crouch’s “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” 

But the Neville Brothers’ John Newton–Bob Marley medley is the last track on the last disc. And as such it has the final word.