“I see music as a language”, says Neame, “and I’ve always been fascinated by languages and the way people express themselves. For me, improvising feels very similar to speaking French or Italian. I think about music a lot, or I’m usually singing something or other inside my head. It expresses emotions so purely – and there’s no room for bullshitters! I love it when music moves me to tears, when the musician is able to cast his or her spell over the listener.”
Neame’s musical roots go back some way. “My gran was a violinist and composer who used to write music under a male pseudonym, thanks to the rampant sexism that was rife in the classical music world of the 1930s. And my dad used to play Hammond organ in a band called the Boston Crabs during the 1960s, the less said about that the better!” The young Neame’s musical talents were evident at an early age: “I think I was about four or five when I set up my first drum kit from biscuit tins and milk bottles.” Neame attended a school that was “very stuffy and posh”, but it did have a “really good music department”.
“I used to play in orchestras and sing in the choir every Sunday in Canterbury Cathedral. I also used to play in the Kent Youth Orchestra which was great, because I was playing percussion. This meant hanging around doing very little, so it was a good way of getting to know the symphonic repertoire.” Neame also extended his horizons (and repertoire!) out of school by playing in a soul band.
Although Neame is perhaps best known for his piano and keyboard skills, he is also a very capable saxophonist. “I got my first alto saxophone when I was about nine. It was a Yamaha 32 – the basic student model. I had that until about age 17 when I went to an open day at the Royal Academy and I was blown away by the students on the course. I decided to apply and ended up by joining the course and at that point decided that I needed a better instrument. “I bought a Selmer Mk VII Alto, because I couldn’t find a Mk VI anywhere and I have to say it felt pretty good. I don’t think they’re as good as the Mk VIs, as they have a brighter sound and in my opinion, the keywork’s not as good either.” Having played the Mk VII for a few years, Neame finally got his hands on the hallowed Mk VI. “I finally found one which used to belong to Pat Crumly. It’s a brilliant instrument, but unfortunately one day I dropped it on its crook. So now I use a Series 2 crook on it and that works just fine. Neame also owns a Selmer Series 2 Soprano. “This is a great horn, and it’s silver. Silver horns are supposed to have a sweeter sound which is probably quite handy on soprano if you don’t want to sound like a snake charmer! He also owns a Selmer MkVI Tenor that used to belong to Phil Day. “It’s a beauty – I just don’t get to play it as much as I’d like.”
Neame’s favourite piano is clearly a Steinway, although he has a Yamaha P-121 upright at home which is a no-frills piano and is “fine for practice”. “The Steinway ‘D’ in Abbey Road studio is the most amazing piano. Steinways seem to have this incredible depth to their sound. If they’re kept in good condition they have that warmth and you can get more colours out of the instrument. It’s a cliché, but Yamahas can have that toppy sound and I’m not a fan of that. I’ve recorded on Bosendorfers, Yamahas and Faziolis, but Steinways always seem to come out the best.”
For gigging Neame uses a combination of keyboards and synths. “I have a Nord electro 2 which is a very handy keyboard in terms of size. But to be honest I have yet to find a piano sound on a keyboard that feels good to play. I’ve tried all kinds, Nord stage, Roland RD 300, Yamaha P90. Using Ivory as a plug in through Logic. It all sucks!” I must admit though that the Roland Juno 60 is a great synth and I’ve been using it to overdub things on recordings and for improvising. I love the sound, and it’s got some cosmic jazz possibilities that are endless.”
Neame also has a Nord Lead 3 that he uses in the Cinematic Orchestra. “It’s got lots of good options for finding weird and wonderful sounds and you can save all the sounds on it, unlike the previous versions of this keyboard.” For keyboard amplification Neame uses the Roland KC-200 keyboard amp. “I have a Mackie mixer and some JBL monitor speakers which the piano sounds pretty good through.”
When it comes down to musical communication, Neame feels very fortunate with the two instruments that he plays. “With the sax it’s the variety of sound that you can get out of the instrument and the way you can be very vocal with it – like you’re singing through the horn. With the piano, I really like the dynamic variation that can be achieved and the possibilty of creating counterpoint with different parts moving around symbiotically. I also like the way that it is a percussion instrument and I love playing as a rhythm section player and being part of a groove.” Interview by David Gallant