This piece was almost titled ‘my career as Jef Neve’s Driver’, but in the end, I shied away from that. In truth, my tenure as a roadie/driver was brief (although fulfilling). The term roadie was perhaps a bit of a stretch also because I only lifted one suitcase (and that was with help). I decided early in life that my ideal job was working as a roadie for a Jazz pianist. I figured that the obligation to lift heavy things would be minimal and that I could consume endless supplies of live improvised music. With regard to the first point, I was woefully under-researched. In Europe, Neve actually travels accompanied by his piano, but luckily for me, the airlines are reluctant to accept a piano as stow-on luggage. The Auckland airport pick-up went flawlessly (apart from the suitcase to person ratio which was resolved by Neve who is used to fitting notes into improbable spaces). As we drove, I chatted; easing my way into the story in true Gonzo journalist fashion. So there we were jammed into my car like Hanseatic cod; Jef, Pieter, Dieter and me; heading for a piano, a rhythm section and a string quartet. This was going to be fun.I met Neve once before and I have followed his career over the years. He is a major artist and a household name in Belguim. A year ago I passed through his beautiful city of Ghent, and I vividly recall a young woman behind the hotel counter asking me what I knew about the city. It was actually Robert Browning who introduced me to Ghent, but I replied Jef Neve. Oh yes, he’s famous she said. When I told her that I had once interviewed him, she was obviously impressed. In her eyes, I was no longer some grey haired tourist but a guy who had met Jef Neve.The KMC is a venue with good acoustics; not too dry – not too wet. It was once a television studio and before that the principal home of radio in New Zealand. Now it houses the UoA Jazz School and the School of dance. I found a swivel chair and slid my self across to the listening sweet spot as the trio rehearsed. Then, the string quartet turned up and the work began in earnest. Into that darkened space the music spirits descended; channelling themselves through Neve’s fingers and entering the musicians one by one. I sat there through four and a half hours of rehearsal; soaking up the sound; awestruck and utterly engrossed from start to finish. Cam McArthur was on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Both are very fine musicians – on this gig they manifested as truly great musicians.Experienced improvising musicians are quick to read cues; usually conveyed by a brief glance. Things can change in a moment as new ideas develop; it is a core skill – the ability to interpret subliminal signals and react accordingly. For a classical string quartet, it is different. Cues are generally pencilled into their charts or perhaps conveyed by a conductor. The Black Quartet tackled these difficult charts with vigour, questioning Neve throughout and writing in minute changes or subtle expression marks. I heard Neve remark afterwards how enormously impressed he was with their musicianship – “I would be happy to work with these musicians anytime”, he said. Throughout the day the musicians rehearsed the knotty bits and acclimatised themselves to function as an ensemble. Watching music like this take shape is a joy.Concerts like this are underpinned by hard work and it usually takes a number of rehearsals to achieve tight ensemble playing. Occasionally I get to observe bands in rehearsal or in a recording studio and as the hours go by you can feel the energy shift. An evolution occurs as the music is properly understood and internalised. So it was with this ensemble and after hours of concentrated work, they breathed in unison. The key to this was Neve who is a gifted communicator and patience personified. When energy is harnessed in this way it becomes spirit. Neve had two assistants with him and as the ensemble poured over the charts these two quietly wove their magic. Both sat at consoles and throughout the day they tweaked, miked-up and fine-tuned the sound. The string section was miked to perfection, giving out a sweet woody sound but subtly amplified to exactly the right place in the mix. An audience is seldom aware of the hours a good sound technician puts in (that is unless they do a poor job). This was sound mixing as an art-form. The results were perfection.
I watched the string section throughout the day as layer after layer of complexity was added to already complex charts. I wondered how they would ever remember it all but they did. The performance sang like the gods had blessed it. After all of that work, they yielded to the spirit control. It is often said that Rock is simple music made to sound complex and that Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. As they played this beautiful music, it flowed with such ease. All of the intricacies and fine tuning of the rehearsal were subsumed into the greater whole. This is Neve’s gift; a master musician who blends genres seamlessly, who breathes life into the notes on a stave and takes others along with him. For me, that sublime performance was enhanced by the journey proceeding it. On that day, I was not only a driver but a music voyeur; the best job in the world.‘Spirit Control’ is a lovely album. It is richly satisfying and with a clarity of purpose that cuts through genre and preconception. There is an orchestral quality to Neve’s piano so when the orchestra comes in or fades out the transition feels seamless. There are so many clever references in this music – often shimmering – mirage-like; Tango, folk, modern classical, Nordic improvised Ambient, even pop. This is, however, Jazz of the highest order. Not drawing on the blues but on the many musical forces of Neve’s continent. Jazz has many homes in the modern world. While most of the pieces on the album were played at the Auckland concert there were also new arrangements and pieces from previous albums. There were also hard swinging trio passages. During these, Samsom and McArthur were astounding, moving from arco bass or colourist drumming to a dizzying, exciting, take no prisoners swing. The cross-appeal of this album is evidenced by the fact that it appeared on the Belgium pop charts and stayed there for weeks.
The next day a smaller concert was held at the Lewis Eady showrooms in Epsom. This was a solo piano gig and Neve took a very different tack to the day before. While he played a few of his own compositions, he also played some Jazz standards – Monk’s ‘I mean you’ was a rare treat – with a stride piano left hand accentuating Monk’s delightfully quirky tune. Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ was moving and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’ was delicate and beauty manifest. After the concert, we ate tapas in K’Road and then I drove them into the Waitakere hills. We stopped at the highest trig point and later at Rose Hallaby’s cottage. As they looked out over the vast expanse of native bush and the smells of forest washed away the smells of the city, I saw the amazement and wonder on their faces. When you live in the lowlands views like this are rare. I told them of the many artists and musicians who live in these hills. When your attuned to the creative spirit then life is good.
All photos except the album cover were taken by me during the rehearsal on Saturday 14 October 2017