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NEPM brings you our annual Spring Music Series focusing on New England musicians.

Khalif Neville Brings New Orleans Beat With A 21st Century Twist

Pianist Khalif Neville is heir to one of the most prominent musical families to come out of New Orleans. Khalif is the son of Charles Neville, of the legendary Neville Brothers, who have been performing together since the late 1970s.

Khalif Neville, who turned 21 last November, is poised to continue the family tradition. He's just released his second CD.

Although he's been mostly raised in the hills of Huntington, Massachusetts, where his mother Kristen’s family is from, Khalif Neville is very proud of the fact that he was born in the Crescent City.

It seemed natural that he would gravitate towards music at a very early age, he said, although he isn't quite sure why he didn't follow his father and take up the saxophone.

“I don't know what happened,” Khalif said. “I imagine my dad would have liked me to play the saxophone, but maybe I just didn't sound good when he gave me one. So, I ended up on the piano when I was about four years old, and kind of worked my way into it. And then I think he started letting me at least sit in with him on gigs when I was in, like, early high school.”

Khalif Neville.
Credit Julian Parker-Burns / Laudable Productions
Laudable Productions
Khalif Neville.

Khalif said he also took music lessons.

“I had several teachers, though none for that long,” he said. “I'd say mostly it was my dad giving me the foundation, theoretically. And then I kind of fleshed out the technique for piano.”

After going through what he calls a frustrating period in middle school, Khalif said he became more serious about music in the 10th grade. He joined the jazz band at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

At age 18, Khalif recorded his first CD, “Discerning the Transmudance.”

“My best interpretation of it, since it was a word that I made up, is kind of the unknown, and just the supernatural, maybe,” he said. “I don't know, it's up to you.”

It's an acoustic set of solo and duo performances, featuring his father, that included Charles’s composition, “African Eyes.”

Khalif Neville has just released his sophomore recording, “Wishin’,” in which he deploys the electric keyboards and organ, along with a trio and his father on some tracks, including a new version of “African Eyes.”

Not one to constrict himself to any one style or genre, Khalif said the album reflects his broader tastes from hip hop to other contemporary sounds.

“Me and my little brother, Talyn Neville -- who’s a drummer -- we both listened to a good bit of electronic music, which my dad, for a while, just didn’t regard as music at all, which hurt my feelings a little bit. But I can see how all of those electronic sounds would be a little jarring. But I think it’s cool. And it’s definitely different than jazz or any of the old school styles of music.”

Does he consider himself a jazz musician?

“So that’s another thing my dad taught me that really sticks, and I’m glad it sticks. Because in today’s day and age, with all the genres, on iTunes and on the radio and whatnot, it feels very sectioned off. But he told me that music is music, and you should be able to play anything. I’d say I’m a musician, and I love jazz, and I love playing it. But I can get into some other styles, and sometimes I do. With my new record, I tried to kind of fuse a little bit of the hip hop and the funk with the jazz. I think it came out pretty cool.”

The album features mostly original compositions by father and son, and includes his take on a couple of New Orleans standards linked to the city of his birth, like an instrumental version of “Iko Iko.”

Khalif Neville on keyboard, with his father Charles Neville on saxophone.
Credit Courtesy Khalif Neville
Courtesy Khalif Neville
Khalif Neville on keyboard, with his father Charles Neville on saxophone.

“A lot of those songs do have words, but the one thing about New Orleans music that I really appreciate is that the rhythm section is really strong,” Khalif said. “It's really about the beat in the New Orleans music, as well as everything that goes on top of it. But I just wanted to see what would happen if I extracted the beat, and then inserted the instrumental stuff on top of it, as opposed to the lyrics, or whatever else it might be. And I try to add a little 21st century twist to it.”

Visit NEPR's Spring Music Series for more stories.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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