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Jef Neve's dramatic piano compositions enthrall his Ottawa Jazz Festival audience

Jef Neve
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Monday, June 29, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Michael Bates' Northern Spy
Great Canadian Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Monday, June 29, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

Jef Neve is a Belgian pianist and composer with considerable credits in both classical and jazz, who has been touring and recording as a jazz artist for more than a dozen years now, including performing with vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher and American singer José James. He had just come from five days of performing in Japan before this show, and afterwards was heading off to Vancouver.

He's a polished performer – musically, in his appearance (three-piece brocade suit), and in his easy rapport with the audience. This was the first time he'd performed in Ottawa, but his demeanour throughout his solo piano show was natural and comfortable.

Neve had to compete with Pink Martini's full house in Confederation Park, so the Fourth Stage looked a bit empty to start but filled in throughout the first half-hour as listeners came in from the 7 p.m. Studio show. At the beginning, almost the entire audience was in the south half of the room, the better to see Neve's hands on the piano keyboard.

His set-list was a mixture of standards and originals, performed with verve but also sensitivity. He started by playing thunderously on the strings inside his grand piano, following that up with rumbling bass lines, and then letting vibrating notes resolve into a melody. It was Billy Strayhorn's “Lush Life”, performed gracefully and with added flourishes. Neve said later that the song had added meaning for him because of Strayhorn's role as a composer from a young age.

He followed that with one of his own compositions, “Could It Be True?”, a ballad accented with bright notes and a vibrating bass line, in which he appeared to be singing along with the music (but more softly and much less annoyingly than Keith Jarrett), and then by a Thelonious Monk piece, performed with a touch of stride piano.

Neve paid tribute to “a great Canadian lady” – Joni Mitchell – with his next piece, Mitchell's “A Case of You”. He performed it delicately and with care, in an almost orchestral rendition. Near the end, he played inside the piano, muted and almost fairy-like, before ending the piece with a few last melancholy, deep notes. The audience responded with strong applause.

“Solitude”, a piece Neve wrote for a play about how relationships can shift over a lifetime, showed considerable dramatic tension and evolving changes in mood and style, and was again warmly applauded. “Formidable” was Neve's tribute to Stromae, a Belgian singer, rapper and songwriter, whom Neve admired for his ability to unify all the residents of his country. It began slow and measured, and became steadily more resonant and emphatic and with a touch of rap rhythms. “Flight to Diani Beach” was inspired by an airplane flight over Kenya in which Neve saw – and was awed by – Mount Kilimanjaro; it featured bright vibrating high notes over strong bass rhythms.

Neve closed the 90-minute show with “Kundalini”, a composition written by Myrddin, a guitar player from Ghent whom he said combines both the Manouche and flamenco traditions. The title comes from a yoga practice in which one releases cosmic energy, and Neve said (laughing) that Myrddin promised him if he played this piece often enough, he would feel the cosmic energy through his body. Despite its origins, the piece actually reminded me more of 19th century romantic classical composers, with lots of vibrating notes and flourishes – and a hopeful feel, ending in a strong climax. The audience greeted it with a standing ovation. They gave another standing ovation to the encore, Neve's “One for the Road”, a thoughtful piece that ended quietly in a series of full, hypnotically-repeated patterns of notes.

It was a crowd-pleasing concert which exhibited Neve's showmanship and love of drama, but also his strong musicianship and compositional skills to back up that presentation and to connect with the audience.


Earlier that evening, ex-Vancouverite, now Brooklynite, bassist Michael Bates brought his latest CD, Northern Spy, to the main stage of Confederation Park. He told the audience that the music on the album was influenced by the great soul singers like Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, although, to my ears, it sounded more funky and raucous than Redding's smooth delivery.

The group – Bates on double bass, another Vancouver ex-pat, Michael Blake, on tenor saxophone, and American Jeremy 'Bean’ Clemons on drums – played the first two pieces alone. They were then joined by festival programming director Petr Cancura, also on tenor sax, for the remainder of the concert. At this festival, Cancura sat in what appeared to be an unusually large numbers of shows, although particularly with musicians he previously knew.

The two saxophonists more than doubled their energy, playing around and through each other in “The Roxy” with an atonal edge reminiscent of mid-60s John Coltrane (another influence Bates mentions for this album). “Bean” was a similarly high-energy piece in honour of the group's drummer, which began with an echoing drum solo and turned into trading lines between saxes and drums.

But my favourites were the more subdued pieces: “The End of History”, hypnotic and hymn-like, and “An Otis Theme on Curtis Changes”, which began and ended strongly but turned mellower and reminiscent of a gospel number in the middle, including a lovely, soul-like solo from Blake. Perhaps I was simply worn out from too much groove at the festival, but I found those two pieces the most interesting and refreshing of the hour-long show.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.