One of the most interesting and prolific musicians to emerge from the European jazz scene during the last 15 years, Jef Neve is a classically trained pianist with a modern jazz sensitivity that puts him among the best of his generation, internationally.
A favourite among the Australian jazz community – he has been in Australia many times in recent years – he returns for a special performance with Phil Rex (bass) and Danny Fischer (drums), in what will probably be one of the highlights of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s Summer Sessions.
We had the chance to catch up with him, a few days before his arrival, and talk about a range of subjects as vast as jazz and improvisation, humour and solitude, emotions and cultural identity – or even politics.
AustralianJazz.Net: You’ve been to Australia quite a few times. Do you have any insights regarding the Australian jazz audience, compared to the European one?
Jef Neve: I think they’re pretty similar. They are not that different than the Europeans, given that they are part of the Commonwealth, of course. For me, it feels like coming home, in a way, although it is very far from Belgium, obviously – because I’ve made a lot of friends over there. Australians are a very open community; they tend to be much more relaxed than the Americans or other people and they have a very good sense of humour, which for me is very important.
AJN: That’s interesting, given that humour is not the first word to come to mind when someone talks about your music.
JN: Of course it is. It’s all about the exchange you have with the audience. You can’t pretend that there is no audience. This exchange of energy is very inspiring to me as an artist. It doesn’t matter what your music is going to be about, if you’re going to play a love song, or a sad song. Once you start playing, the only thing that matters is whether people are ready to receive emotions and humour is a very important factor in highlighting emotions.
AJN: Still, it feels a little strange talking about humour, when there is all this discourse in Europe about the limits of humour and satire, in the aftermath of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ killings.
JN: Of course what happened in France is horrible. When things like that happen, we feel that we have responsibility on a worldwide level. Everything is relevant, my friend, because the same day this news became front page, all over the world, there were very small articles about bombings and killings in Yemen and Iraq and other parts of the world. As Europeans, we’re not always ready to be aware of the consequences of what we do in other parts of the world. I believe that the Americans are more aware of this. So in a way it makes us much more conscious. The beautiful thing about this horrible situation is that it created a kind of solidarity that we never experienced in Europe. We tried to come together as one continent, but during the recent crisis, most of the countries tend to concentrate more on their own problems. I have the impression that not only Europe, but the entire world – the western world as we know it – are more together than they used to be, after this attack.
AJN: You come from Belgium, the centre of the European Union and, by definition, a country in which the idea of a unified Europe is stronger than other countries. Do you perceive yourself as a Belgian jazz artist or as a European one?
JN: I consider myself as a world jazz artist. I certainly don’t see myself as a Belgian artist. If I have to name it, I’d say that I’m European. I feel European and it reflects on the way I play, because – as you know – I have a very strong classical background. If there is something that sets European jazz musicians apart, it is that they are aware of their musical history – Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky. I spent so many hours on the piano playing their music, that it is natural that they have influenced the way I make music, my playing and my compositions, as much as jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett. But I’ve also been influenced by pop artists, like Radiohead. I’m not a purist; I won’t say that I don’t like Madonna; I love her. When I’m composing music, I don’t think that it has to be jazz or it has to be classical; I just write music that I find interesting, even if this makes it more difficult to put a label on it. I’d say that the way I compose music is classical, but the way I play the piano is more jazz.
AJN: What is important to you when you improvise?
JN: I think one of the most important things in improvisation is being open in the moment; being open for what you feel on the spot while you do it. That includes the energy of the audience in the room or even the energy of the venue itself, or the quality of the piano. All of these are very important to me.
AJN: How do you achieve this kind of ‘openness’?
JN: The art of concentration is how you prepare. It is important that I am not hungry, that I am doing my little workout before, that I have some good rest.
AJN: Your music has been described as serene, lyrical, solemn, poetic, cinematic even. How would you describe it?
JN: Let’s say that I’m really comfortable with these descriptions. I do believe that there is a cinematic quality in my music. A lot of my music starts with an image or with an idea when I’m travelling.
AJN: Your latest album, One, is a solo project. How did you decide to go this way?
JN: I’ve been playing for a long while with a trio formation – and lately, with horn players – and I thought that I’m 37 years old; If I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it?
When you listen to my music, then you will know why I did it. Because I think it expresses musical emotions that I couldn’t express with a trio. That’s the only reason why I did it. I felt ready, more than I have ever felt before; I was more afraid of it earlier on.
AJN: Playing solo would turn every concert into a very intimate situation, right?
JN: The interesting part of playing a solo concert is that there is a very direct exchange of energy. I can’t hide. There is not the funny face of my drummer, or the funny face of my bass player to turn to. It’s just me and the audience.
AJN: One of your compositions is named Solitude. What does the word mean to you?
JN: Being in a relationship and being totally alone.
AJN: What mostly inspires you when you’re alone at home?
JN: Several emotions are very important. I can be working on a piece of music for weeks and the thing I’m looking for is not coming, because I don’t feel the right emotion. This can be triggered by normal life, everyday life events. It’s difficult to explain what inspiration is. Sometimes you’re just lucky. You just put your hands on your keyboards and it comes.
AJN: Do you feel lucky, in general?
JN: I’m really lucky. I’m the luckiest man on this planet. Of course, I’ve been working for everything I’ve achieved, but, honestly, I’ve been really lucky. I’m lucky because I have the best friends in the world, I have the best boyfriend in the world, I’m lucky I have a really nice family, I’m lucky because I can live my dream that is playing music and travelling around the world. It doesn’t get better than this.
Melbourne International Jazz Festival – Summer Sessions: An evening with Jef Neve