Jef Neve & Pascal Schumacher/Jef Neve Trio
(Pizza Express, Dean Street, Saturday 19th November. LJF2011. Review by Tom Gray)
In two very contrasting Saturday night sets at the Pizza Express, Belgian pianist Jef Neve demonstrated why his stock has steadily been rising in Europe over the last decade.
Neve opened the evening in a duo with the vibraphonist from Luxembourg Pascal Schumacher. While their meticulously arranged compositions and sheer virtuosity may have outbalanced the sense of improvisational daring, this set nevertheless had a lot going for it.
On ‘Together at Last’ (based on the chord progression to ‘Alone Together’), Neve and Schumacher’s neatly intertwined contrapuntal lines had shades of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Obvious reference points were harder to identify on the Asian-tinged ‘Almalyk’, which was cinematic in the breadth of atmospheres it evoked in its meandering through-composed form.
Rather than the considerable dexterity on display, what really impressed was this pair’s command of dynamics, ranging from hushed pianissimo sections in which they coaxed full attention from the audience, through to huge fortissimo swells of sound. The only misstep to my ears was a rather too pristine rendition of Bud Powell’s be-bop classic ‘Hallucinations’ which left me wanting for something a bit closer to the raw, driving spirit of the original.
Happily the second set from Jef Neve’s trio, powered by Ruben Samama on bass and Teun Verbruggen on drums, had this in abundance. The close connection to European romantic composers in Neve’s music and his keen ear for a lyrical phrase coupled with a blistering technique makes comparison with Brad Mehldau inevitable. On a more superficial level, so did his posture at the piano at times, hunched over like a question mark with his elbows pointedly raised.
However, much of the appeal of Neve’s trio was that it didn’t take itself too seriously, offering self-depreciating laughter at ideas that didn’t quite pay off and letting its hair down on the euphoric vamps that concluded several numbers such as ‘Endless DC’. The contributions of New Yorker Samama stood out in particular - on top of his fine bass playing, his looped backing vocals and electronic manipulations generally enhanced the music more than they distracted from it. In a world that some may consider to be overcrowded with piano trios, this group puts forward a compelling case that they deserved to be heard.