Renato Neto Helps Prince Go ‘West': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Prince more or less put aside his jazz fusion aspirations after Madhouse's second record in 1987. But the 2001 launch of the NPG Music Club gave him the freedom to experiment a bit more, and subscribers soon saw a flurry of jazz projects from him. It began in October 2002 with the release of the digital track "Copenhagen." Xpectation, the first all-instrumental album put out under Prince's name, arrived on New Year's Day 2003. A few days later came four more tracks that would be combined with "Copenhagen" to create C-Note.
The final installment of the trilogy, N.E.W.S., came out at the end of June 2003. It was recorded in a single session, Feb. 6, 2003, and contained four songs -- "North," "East," West" and "South" -- each of which were exactly 14 minutes long. (He pulled a similar trick with 1996's Emancipation, which consisted of three discs each exactly sixty minutes long.) As Renato Neto relayed to Keyboard magazine in 2004, the record stemmed from one of those late-night sessions for which Prince was famous.
"One night at around 11:30, he called me, [bassist] Rhonda Smith, [saxophonist] Eric Leeds and [drummer] John Blackwell," he said. "We'd been working all day, and got started on this at midnight."
Handling the guitar chores, Prince gave them virtually no instructions on what to play, but Neto enjoyed the challenge. "You must be creative in that situation," he continued. "He says, 'OK, we're gonna do four song, 15 minutes each. They're called 'North,' 'South,' 'East' and 'West.'' That was it. Somebody said, 'What key?' I think it was C minor [Laughs.] We started playing, and when we got close to 15 minutes, we stopped. Two hours later, we left the studio. Prince stayed a little longer and did some overdubs. Months later, Prince played the finished mix for us. I didn't remember what I played. I had to ask: 'That was me?'"
Born in Brazil, Neto moved to the U.S. in 1991 and, within a few years, was an in-demand keyboardist, producer and arranger. A 2000 stint in Sheila E.'s band caught Prince's ear, and he joined the New Power Generation in time for 2002's One Nite Alone... Tour. In the same Keyboard profile, the usually press-shy Prince was effusive in his praise for Neto.
"Renato brings a very accomplished technique with him, and a sense of harmony that’s informed by where he grew up and what he was exposed to musically," he said. "It’s a cool flavor to add to my music. One really cool thing about Renato: Unlike other keyboard players, I’ve never heard him work in licks he’s learned from somewhere else, and I listen for that. Every night it’s something new. ... I'm more of a colorist on the keyboards, but I can usually get my ideas out. Renato has a whole other level of harmonic understanding."
Neto stayed with Prince through the end of 2004's Musicology tour, but returned in late 2006, a few weeks into Prince's 3121 residency at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and remained on and off with him through 2011.