If you've been to New Orleans around Jazz Fest time, chances are you've seen Ivan Neville perform. It might have been with Galactic, or the Funky Meters, or Robert Randolph, or Soulive, or Gov't Mule, or Karl D, or Papa Grows Funk, or Dumpstaphunk, or at the Neville Brothers' traditional Fest closing set, or at any number of jam sessions. No one embodies the spontaneous, late-night jam spirit of New Orleans music better than Ivan, who has been known to sit in with three bands in a single night. Rather than use a gumbo of New Orleans clichés to describe his prolific schedule and soulful playing and singing, let's just say the dude gets around!
The son of Aaron Neville, Ivan grew up surrounded by New Orleans legends. His professional music career began soon after high school when he started playing full-time with the Neville Brothers. After this early apprenticeship, he shuffled between Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans. Along the way he recorded three solo albums and played and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Rufus, the Rolling Stones, Robbie Robertson, Angie Stone, Robben Ford, Keith Richards, the Spin Doctors, Don Henley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Cassady, and many many others.
After conquering a serious drug addiction in the late nineties, Ivan was recruited by the Neville Brothers to help out while his uncle, Art Neville, recovered from back surgery. This allowed Ivan to reconnect with the Crescent City and exposed him to up-and-coming bands like Galactic and Soulive. Around this time, he recorded a new solo record (Saturday Morning Music, later re-released as Scrape) at his pal Bruce Willis's Los Angeles home. Like a good New Orleans jam session, the album is packed with special guests like Bonnie Raitt, Robben Ford, Keith Richards, Leo Nocentelli, Daryll Jones, and Michael Brecker. Most recently, Ivan co-produced and co-wrote the latest Neville Brothers studio album, Walkin' in the Shadow of Life, at the Brothers' own Neville Neville Land studios on Canal Street in New Orleans.
I caught up with Ivan just before he left for a pre-Jazz Fest tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Neville Brothers. His voice is a raspy, comforting, New Orleans drawl, and once he gets on a roll telling a story, there's no interrupting. We talked about everything from growing up as a Neville to hanging out with Keith Richards to his plans for this year's Fest.
JamBase: Were you around a lot of famous New Orleans musicians when you were growing up?
Ivan: I remember going to some of the recording studios with my dad when I was a little kid and seeing the Meters and Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. [New Orleans piano legend] James Booker was a frequent visitor to our house. He went to grade school with my mom. When James Booker came by your house, and you had a piano — and we always had a piano in our house — he'd sit down and play. And he was just fucking amazing. My dad can play a little piano, so he taught me a little bit, and James Booker showed me a little something, and then I've watched Art. It was pretty fun growing up there.
Ivan Neville by Paul La Raia
JamBase: Did you ever meet Professor Longhair?
Ivan: Yeah, I crossed paths with Fess several times. As a matter of fact, I got to play with him one time. The Nevilles were doing a gig at Jimmy's with him, and I jumped up on stage and played a little clavinet. That was pretty fun.
JamBase: Who were your influences growing up?
Ivan: A big influence to me was my uncle Cyril Neville. He was with the Meters in 1975, and he was one of the lead singers of the Neville brothers from day one. He was probably close to ten years under the youngest brother, so he was more like a big brother than an uncle. I was turned on to a lot of music from going to his house, hanging out, and listening to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and lots of reggae records.
Did you ever rebel against New Orleans music?
I rebelled against it hard. I mean, it was pretty much a given for me, especially with being a Neville. I really listened to the radio, which at that time was great soul and rock and roll music.
Ivan Neville by Paul La Raia
What were some of the groups you were listening to?
Sly and the Family Stone comes to mind. And obviously Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. There was a wide variety of stuff that was just great.
Did you get to meet any of those people when they came to town?
Not those particular people, but I had a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of people because of who I was. Being in the Neville family, a guy can meet a lot of people that would come through.