Everything falls into place on pianist Jef Neve’s new album


Cherry-picking the best of classical, jazz and pop, the Ghent-based musician has come a long way in the past 10 years

Letting go

“You don’t need misery to be inspired to make music,” says Flemish pianist and composer Jef Neve. “I strongly believe that music can be healing. Unlike lots of other artists who write darker music as their career evolves, I started out quite dark, and my new album is quite optimistic. Maybe I’ll end up writing songs for K3…”

Just back from a holiday spent kite-surfing – “probably the only time when I can completely forget about music” – Neve meets me in a restaurant beside a church in Sint-Maartens-Latem, where’s he’s playing a concert in an hour. His studio is here, too, and he lives in nearby Ghent.

It’s been almost 10 years since I last spoke to Neve (pictured), when we met in his Brussels home. “I followed love to Ghent,” he says, though he’s still fond of the capital. “I feel like after the terrorist attacks last year, the city has found a new, positive vibe.”

Separating his living and working space was something he thought long and hard about. If he didn’t draw a line between work and home, “I would go completely crazy because I would be working 24/7.”

Vivaldi in the air

Last month, Neve released his new album, Spirit Control. “This time around, I didn’t have a concept when I started composing. But I knew very well what I didn’t want to do,” he says. “It wasn’t going to be an album for my trio, a collaboration with a singer, or a straightforward solo album.”

He just started writing some unconnected pieces of music, and on honeymoon in Italy last summer, it fell into place.

“My husband and I were in a music shop in Siena, where Max Richter’s album Vivaldi Recomposed was playing. On the album, he’s interpreting Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was very inspiring,” he recalls. “For instance, at times he makes his string ensemble play very rhythmically, as if you’re listening to a drummer. That’s when I decided I wanted to work with strings. But I also changed my mind about the trio, because some tunes worked best in that small line-up.”

It’s easier to get a start playing jazz than playing with a symphony orchestra

- Jef Neve

Ten years ago, Neve was seen as an up-and-coming jazz pianist and only a small inner circle knew that alongside his jazz training, he studied classical piano and specialised in chamber music. A year after that conversation, his first piano concerto was performed by the Brussels Philharmonic with Neve as the soloist. 

“Honestly, 10 years ago, I didn’t dare to dream that all those things would happen. I’m thankful for all the chances I got.”

They’re chances he created himself, aren’t they? “It’s reciprocal, I think.” But it’s no coincidence, he explains, that he started his musical conquest via jazz.

“After finishing my piano studies, I didn’t dream of a career as a concert pianist, because I would miss composing. That’s why I first presented myself as a jazz pianist,” he explains. “I also made that choice because as a newcomer it’s easier to get a start playing jazz than playing with a symphony orchestra: There are more than enough clubs where you can put your talent on show.” 

Control freak

But he doesn’t want to sound too calculated: “I also surfed on my intuition and followed my heart.” As a consequence of his success, and thanks to his qualities as a piano player, he is sometimes asked to perform with an orchestra.

Classical, jazz or pop: Neve really needs this diversity. “I wouldn’t be happy if, for the rest of my life, I only played jazz or only classical or only pop or only wrote soundtracks. I love to cherry-pick what I like in each of those genres,” he says.

On this record in particular, he says, “I’ve been able to format all these preferences into one coherent entirety. I probably needed those 10 years to make a record like Spirit Control.”

On a soundtrack, you look at your work differently, since you’re seeing it through the eyes of an outsider

- Jef Neve

Soundtracks are, indeed, another of Neve’s musical trump cards. He recently scored the Flemish film Sprakeloos (Speechless) by Hilde Van Mieghem that was released in March. “Hilde is very demanding, a characteristic that I highly respect,” says Neve. “I felt that every note was important to her. At times she even sat next to me when I recorded the music, giving me some final directions.”

It’s by far his least embellished soundtrack. “Less is more was the motto! I don’t like it when people stick their oar into my work. But when I’m guided, for instance by a director, in a world that I would not explore by myself and am made to discover new things, I accept it because it enriches me. It’s best illustrated by me reworking one of the tracks from the soundtrack for Spirit Control. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.”

Still, for a control freak like Neve, it’s a huge step to hand over the reins. “It’s very important to trust each other blindly,” he says. “What makes it even more interesting is that you’re looking at your work differently, since you’re seeing it through the eyes of an outsider. And you’re trying to write the music as if the directors themselves were making it. You have to let go of your musical ego. It’s very interesting.”

But not always easy, I can imagine. “Certainly not if you have a big ego like I have.” His roar of laughter fills the restaurant.

Jef Neve is on tour across Flanders and Europe from 5 May

Photo: Rob Walbers

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