Jef Neve – Spirit Control
(Universal Music Belgium 5744122. CD review by Mary James )
Spirit Control has been in the top 10 of the Belgian pop charts constantly since its release in March this year. With this new album pianist Jef Neve celebrates turning 40 and his return to life, as it were, after the depression he felt around his 30th birthday. Work with José James, soundtracks, years of touring the world in major concert halls with an extended trio and recently a solo album One have culminated in this new work.
It’s easy to hear why this album appealed so widely, with its sumptuous orchestration and graphic compositions such as the racing-paced NYC Marathon. But it’s not pop and it could just as easily sit in contemporary classical as jazz with its glimpses of Barber and Reich. Above all it’s about the excitement of liberation. Neve says “Spirit Control, or the idea that your mind is finally doing what you always desired, the thought that you are taking the wheel now, [is]a fantastic feeling of freedom.”
There is certainly a glorious pulse of heartbeat coursing through this album from the opening track Crystal Lights right through to the end. Its scale is huge with a string and horn ensemble yet there is never a feeling of too much of anything. The album manages to be rich, detailed and delicate all at the same time, like the transparent jewel-coloured lacquers on a Japanese box. The way some of the compositions have been put together reminded me of how Brian Wilson appeared to construct Pet Sounds, here the underlying scaffolding of piano is decorated with a myriad of tiny details such as one note of a bell, or short snatches of trumpet, or washes of electronics.
Kite Crash is a mesmeric piece which uses full-on electronics and disorientating strings to set up the title track Spirit Control, a symphonic piece with classical opening. The inclusion of Australian pop singer Sam Sparro – also credited as co-composer – on the ballad Caterpillar, was an inspired choice. To me, this song appears to be an allegory of Neve’s life, the lyrics (by Sparro) describing the vulnerable life of a caterpillar and its eventual triumphant metamorphosis to butterfly, almost to its own surprise. Both artists are out of their comfort zones and the result is touching.
Neve writes beautiful tunes that hang around in your head and send you back to replay this album again and again, so satisfying is his virtuosity and eloquency of feeling. Nowhere is this better illustrated than Solitude which first appeared on his solo album One, an expressive piece about father and son. Here it has been given an orchestral arrangement with piano at full pedal, tension and release in perfect balance. Paris, Place Sainte-Catherine with its references to Durante’s Make Someone Happy is the perfect closure, mysterious and atmospheric.
This is a truly beautiful personal album of many layers and subtle colours from the master of emotional intensity truly at ease with himself.
Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with Maciek Pysz and others. Twitter @maryleamington