If it wasn’t for Cris Jacobs’ and Ivan Neville’s penchant for playing poker, a powerhouse collaboration between the renowned Baltimore and New Orleans musicians might never have come to pass.
While Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and Jacobs’ The Bridge (the storied Baltimore band he fronted until 2011) crossed paths several times over the years, the project that bears their names, NevilleJacobs, was born not at a concert, but at a poker table in New Orleans.
The two first played poker the day after The Bridge’s first show in New Orleans in October 2007, where Neville sat in on organ with the band on a whim. Neville sat down next to Jacobs at the poker table by chance, and the two chatted it up for a while. Their paths continued to cross. Jacobs played guitar with Dumpstaphunk a few times as well.
“Then lo and behold, [a few years later] the next time I was in New Orleans and made my way to the casino, he was the first person I saw when I walked in,” Jacobs, who now fronts the Cris Jacobs Band, said. So the two exchanged numbers and, at another poker table, tossed around the idea of making some music together. And while an undoubtedly infinite number of musicians have surely had the same conversation, in this case, everything actually came together.
After an informal but successful studio session in Baltimore, the duo tapped bassist Tony Hall, Neville’s Dumpstaphunk bandmate, who has played with Bob Dylan, David Byrne and Emmylou Harris among others, and drummer/producer, Brady Blade, who played with Hall in Emmylou Harris’ band as well as with Dave Matthews & Friends.
The band’s debut album, for which an Indiegogo campaign raised more than $16,000, is expected in Spring 2016, and record deals are progressing, Jacobs said. Neville Jacobs makes its live Baltimore debut at The 8×10 on Dec. 9.
“We’re ready to start letting the Ferrari out of the garage,” Jacobs said.
While recent years have seen Jacobs opening for the likes of Steve Winwood and the Steve Miller Band, he now finds himself in a band with New Orleans royalty. Ivan is the son of Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers, who were the first concert Jacobs’ parents took him to in the ’80s.
“It stands up, too. It’s not just a name,” Jacobs said. “[Ivan’s] got music running through his blood. He’s such a natural and soulful—you can tell it’s just generations of seasoning there.”
Add to the mix Hall—whom Jacobs described as “one of the best musicians, period”—and Blade, who brings a fresh ear to the project as a producer, and you get a band that sounds equally at home playing funk, ballads and singer/songwriter-style tunes.
While one might expect a super-funky record, Jacobs quickly realized that Neville shines as much in other musical realms.
“He can obviously funk till the cows come home, roll out of bed and play funk. He can also sing his ass off very soulfully and has great songwriter sensibility and really appreciates songs and lyrics,” Jacobs said. “There’s a lot of groove stuff, dance stuff of course, but I think the cornerstone of this project is the songs and the vocals between he and I.”
Cris Jacobs fans might recognize the acoustic-driven “City Rain” and “The Stakes,” which shines in its powerfully bluesy glory, pushed to a new level with the chorus of Jacobs, Neville and female backup singers. Aaron Neville makes an album appearance to sing with his son on the self-reflective “Makeup of a Fool.” The band gets down on some dirty, dirty funk on a cover of Funkadelic’s “I Wanna Know If It’s Good to You?”
Some of the album’s strongest moments come when Neville and Jacobs play off each other, such as the verses of “River Behind Me,” a tribute to Neville’s mother, in which the vocal melody and guitar follow each other. The upbeat, danceable “Good To You” features some of Neville’s signature organ hits along with Jacobs and Neville harmonizing the song’s chorus.
“I really think we literally just scratched the surface of the potential of this thing,” Jacobs said. “We came up with some great stuff in a very short period of time. I think that if we actually sat down and had more time we could do some serious damage.”
While Jacobs said the band doesn’t plan to “buy a van and do the 200 shows a year thing,” Neville Jacobs will tour behind the record release, and Jacobs said Neville and his other bandmates are committed to organically growing the project.
In addition to the Neville Jacobs Baltimore debut and album, Jacobs has a batch of new songs that he hopes to record by the end of the year with the Cris Jacobs Band for a 2016 release. And he’s not waiting around for these records to come out either. He headlines Baltimore Soundstage on New Year’s Eve, and shortly after that, heads out for the festival on a boat, Jam Cruise, where he plays a solo set and will likely pop up onstage with other artists.
“It’s been schizophrenic, to say the least,” Jacobs said of his various musical outlets. “I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I haven’t pigeonholed myself into being one particular type of musician.”