At only 37, Belgian-born Jef Neve has a storied career as an innovative and acclaimed jazz musician and piano virtuoso. His music is both playful and elegant, and he is one of the foremost voices in contemporary jazz piano.
He has done everything from composing film scores to playing in major jazz festivals – and in 2015, he will be performing a solo piano set in the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s summer sessions. We had the opportunity to quiz him about his youth, his music and his heroes.
When you were younger, did you see yourself playing as diverse a range of music as you have done (including pop, jazz, symphonic pieces)? And of all of those genres, which has been your favourite experience?
When I was a young kid, at the age of 6 I started ‘composing’, writing my first little pieces of music, signing them with ‘Jef Amadeus Neve’, so I think I was pretty sure about what to become later on.
But of course I couldn’t know that the range of what I write would be so diverse, and I’m only happy about that result! Despite some hard core ‘jazz-police’ fans, or some others who expect that my music would be more this or that. It’s just my music, and I can’t say if it’s jazz or pop or classical, it’s just what I feel and my new solo album is the best example of this, because it is a complete diverse album.
You see yourself as a pioneer in Thailand and South East Asia. Why is that?
I told this in an interview a year ago, but I still agree at some point with this quote. There are only a very few European musicians who come to play in cities like Bangkok. And I love it! It is a difficult market, because it is filled with tradition and I respect that, but I feel that I can touch some hearts with my music and slowly things are growing, so I want to keep investing on this part of the world.
Which do you prefer to play: live shows or albums, and why? And of your recorded material, do you prefer soundtracks with the visuals meeting the music, or regular albums, where it is pure music?
Difficult to say, but I think every musician loves to play live shows more, because you get a direct response of the audience. But it can be frustrating as well, for example if you play a concert where the audience is tired or not concentrated (like on festivals), it can be really difficult to take them with me on my trip that I want to show them.
Recordings are fun as well, but mostly very very hard work and it’s actually the first reaction of the listener that you want, not the whole recording session. You want to know how it reaches the people.
Soundtracks or my own albums, I think equally. The soundtrack can be that much supporting to the images that it takes over, and the music on my ‘regular’ albums can take you away that you start to make your own images. If this happens, I’m a happy man!
You’ve attended master classes with some very talented musicians like Martial Solal and Billy Hart, among many others. Did any of these teachers leave a lasting impact on your playing or life?
For me, Toots Thielemans is a very imported name to drop, he is the godfather of Belgian jazz musicians, everybody loves him. And the way he plays those simple melodies so beautifully…
For me as a pianist, it is Brad Mehldau who inspired (and still does) me most!
Of your many accolades and awards, do you have any which stand out?
I don’t make my music to get awards actually. I really like it of course (I’m nominated right now again for 2 Music Industry Awards in Belgium, I’ll know it on January 8th, when I’m in Bangkok ☺) but as much as it can lift your ego, 3 minutes later I go on with the order of the day and try to make my music.
Is there anything exciting or new we can expect from your Melbourne Jazz Festival show?
Yes, because it is the first time in my life that I dared to make a solo album, and to play it in front of an audience. It took me years and years to prepare this album (I even went to Australia to play some solo concerts last year to ‘test’ it on an audience, and one track was even recorded in Australia!) but now it’s there and I’m very proud of it.
And as a special extra for this show I will play a second set in trio with 2 Australian musicians, Philip Rex and Danny Fischer!
You’ve been on tours around the world – can you recommend a few different jazz musicians in a few different countries?
Tord Gustavsen (piano) from Norway, Paulo Fresu (trumpet) Italy, Brad Mehldau, and I can continue for a long time here ☺
Jef’s show takes place on Friday 23 January, 2015, at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Melbourne. Tickets start from $33. To buy tickets and find out more, head to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s website.