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Marius Neset: Norwegian Woods

Ian Patterson By

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Marius Neset has become one of today's most talked-about saxophonists since the release of Golden Xplosion (Edition Records, 2011). The album, which also features pianist/keyboardist Django Bates, bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Anton Eger, has received widespread five-star reviews, and countless superlatives have been used to heap praise on the 26-year-old from Bergen. Neset has been described as the most important Norwegian saxophonist since Jan Garbarek and has been compared to tenor great Michael Brecker, which may be high praise or millstone. What's sure is that in a very short time, Neset has emerged as one of Europe's most exciting young jazz talents and a major draw.

Neset got his wings at Copenhagen's Rhythmic Music Conservatory, and he couldn't have enrolled at a better time. In 2005, the RMC appointed English pianist/keyboard player and composer Django Bates as its first Professor of Rhythmic Music, to raise the Conservatory's international profile and, naturally enough, to cultivate excellence. Bates soon recognized Neset's talent and recruited him for his StoRMChaser big band, which went on to record Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?) (Lost Marble, 2008). Bates—who has described Neset as "an astonishing saxophonist"—also invited Neset to join his small ensemble Human Chain. Now that's praise.

Since 2005, Neset's main concern has been Jazz Kamikaze, one of the most original-sounding quintets on the contemporary jazz scene. The Return of JazzKamikaze (Stunt/Sundance, 2012), the band's fourth recording, could well be its most adventurous to date, and it signals a return to a sound that resembles the band's first two albums, following the pop-rock vocal experiment of Supersonic Revolutions (Seven Seas Music, 2010).

Neset's latest project is Neck of the Woods (Edition Records, 2012), a captivating duo recording with tuba player Daniel Herskedal that explores a region somewhere between Norwegian folkloric music and the ambience of sacred music. It's perhaps Neset's most significant musical statement to date and provides further confirmation, as if any more were needed, that a major new voice in jazz/contemporary music has entered stage center.

All About Jazz: Marius, Neck of the Woods is a quite beautiful, adventurous album. Can you tell us about its genesis?

Marius Neset: Myself and tuba player Daniel Herskedal had the idea to do something together, because we had played together in many different settings before, including [keyboardist] Django Bates' StoRMChaser, but we wanted to do something together that was just the two of us. We arranged a concert in a church as a duo, where we mostly improvised, as we hadn't prepared that much. Our instruments sounded really good together, and we thought we should do something more together.

We came up with the idea of an album, but we wanted something more than just a duo, but instead of using instruments like piano, keyboards or organ, we instead wanted a big choir to give the music a sacred feeling. That was how it came about.

AAJ: You and Daniel met at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, which seems to produce a lot of very good creative musicians. What's special about studying there?

MN: I studied there for seven years, actually. First I did a Masters, and then I studied as a soloist for two years. The good thing about the RMC is that there are a lot of students from many countries and many different types of musicians. It's easy to find people there who you can work together with very well, like drummer Anton Eger and a couple of others, like Magnus Hjorth, Petter Eldh and Daniel [Herskedal]. We would practice a lot together, and it was a really inspiring environment to be in. I met Daniel there and half of the JazzKamikaze there, so it's a really creative place to be.

It was great when I was at the RMC because Django Bates was a music professor there, and I had a lot of contact with him, playing music with him, and he was also a teacher in my solo class, so I learned a lot from him. And of course, I played on his album Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?), so it was a great time for me to be there.

AAJ: You mention Bates' big band. That must have been a very exciting band to be a part of, no?

MN: Django is a really fantastic musician and composer, and very inspiring to play with and be around. Playing with him every week, of course it has an effect on you. The way he played affected my playing very much. I became a much more creative player and composer just by playing with him.

AAJ: Do you have any ambitions to lead your own big band, along the lines of StoRMChaser?

MN: Maybe not my own big band in that way, though actually, my next album has a bigger lineup with sometimes up to 12 musicians playing. I also did a project with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra where I composed music that I played with the orchestra at Molde Jazz [2012]. We are planning a big tour with the project in the fall, 2013.

Marius Neset—Suite for the Seven MountainsAAJ: Are there any plans to release a CD of that performance?

MN: Yes, we're planning to release a CD, probably sometime next year.

AAJ: That's great news. The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, in a relatively short frame of time, about a dozen years, has become something of a Norwegian national institution, having performed with musicians like pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Joshua Redman and Norwegian artists like Kim Myhr. How did it feel to play your compositions with this orchestra?

MN: It was really great and so different to everything else I had done before. It's never the same lineup. It's different musicians from project to project, and you look for the musicians with the qualities you want for each project, so that was fun. When you write for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, you write for 12 individual musicians, rather than in the traditional way for a big band. Each individual personality is really attacking the music in a great way because they are all amazing musicians.

AAJ: We look forward to hearing that recording next year. Let's talk about Neck of the Woods. In essence, a lot of the tunes come across as quite simple musical sketches, but is this simplicity a little deceptive? Were there a lot of takes done to get the music just right?

MN: No [laughs]. For the duo numbers, we normally did only a single take. The choir pieces were a little more produced. We did more takes, and we did more overdubs and things like that. The choir parts and the duo parts were two different kinds of concepts, in a way.

AAJ: The Svanholm Choir sing on three numbers, but was the idea to use them there right from the beginning or did the idea develop as the music developed?

MN: It was not there at the beginning. You're right, it came as we developed the music. We could have used a string orchestra, or we could have used keyboards or organ, but we wanted to have voices on it, as it gives that nice church-like, sacred feeling. It came with the music, and I think it fits the music very well.

AAJ: It's easy to imagine "Christmas Song" getting a lot of radio play at that time of season. It might just have a universal appeal, like "Silent Night," for example.

MN: Yeah, hopefully people will like it.

AAJ: "Swan Island" seems to fall somewhere between classical and hymnal music. How did that composition come about?

MN: That's a piece that I wrote on the piano, and then I arranged it for the choir. That was also not meant to be for a choir in the beginning. It was actually a piece I had in mind for my own band. I wanted to make a song that sounded massive and beautiful, and I think it worked really well with the choir. I had Daniel in my mind when writing this. I wanted to use his extreme range, especially in the high register on the tuba.

AAJ: Herskedal's tuba at just under two minutes into "Swan Island" sounds very sensuous and extremely tender. Could you share your thoughts on what it's like playing with him?

MN: It's very easy to sound good playing with him because our two instruments sound so good together. He can play, as you say, extremely high notes and all the dynamics that go with it, which makes him quite unique. He has a very melodic way of playing the tuba.

AAJ: Another beautiful song is "Eg Er Frammand," sung by Hallvar Djupvik. It's beautiful, but it's also a bit eerie.

MN: That's a folk song that Daniel and I arranged. The singer is not part of the choir; he's an opera singer, actually. We also used some tuba and saxophone overdubs to make the sound bigger. The whole thing is built around this very simple melody.

AAJ: Is this a song that you grew up with?

MN: No, it's not a song that everyone knows. I hadn't heard it before.

AAJ: The song "The Shepherd" sounds like a coda to "Eg Er Frammand." Is there a link in your mind between these two pieces of music?

MN: Yes, I think there is. It's a transition, in a way, from "Eg Er Frammand" to "Ara's Dance."

AAJ: There's a church-like quality to "Preludium" and a folk-like melody on "Ara's Dance." Has Scandinavian church music or folk music been important in the development of the language you use on your saxophone?

MN: Yeah, it's music that I like very much, but it's not something I think about before I start writing.

AAJ: Another folk-influenced song is "Lutra Lutra," though it is clearly inspired by Balkan music. Could you talk about the inspiration for this song?

MN: Yeah, it's very Balkan. Daniel wrote that song. We wanted to do something different. I had never played music like that before, so it was a great experience for me. I had to play it in my own way. It's a very nice composition.

AAJ: "Dragon's Eye" is a tremendously atmospheric composition, both scary because of the breathing and curiously hypnotic.

MN: That's a solo piece by Daniel; I'm actually not playing on that. We wanted to have one solo piece each on this album, and that was his. He can do really extraordinary things with the tuba, though there are a lot of overdubs.

AAJ: The final track on the album is pianist Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Wedding," a gorgeous tune, which again has a hymnal quality. Was it an obvious choice to add to your own compositions?



MN: That was the first piece we played with this duo. We had listened to that Abdullah Ibrahim record, and it's really beautiful. From the beginning, we thought it would be interesting to arrange it for tuba and saxophone. We have a very strong relationship to that song, and I think you can hear that we really connect on it.

AAJ: The sound throughout Neck of the Woods is really excellent. You must be very pleased with that side of the music, no?

MN: Thank you. August Wanngren recorded it. He's a really fantastic sound engineer. He's done all my albums. Daniel and I produced the album ourselves.
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