Review: Marius Neset at Turner Sims

Accompanied by his quartet and the 18-piece London Sinfonietta, Marius Neset provided Michael Tucker with an exceptional evening of music

In my review of Marius Neset's Snowmelt album with the London Sinfonietta (Jazz Journal, November 2016) I suggested that the two British concerts by Neset and the Sinfonietta in November were likely to be “something else”.

I couldn't attend the first concert at London's St. Luke's as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival (whence Neset is pictured right by Marcin Pulawski) but this was certainly the case at Southampton's Turner Sims Hall. The fullest house I've seen there for quite some time relished two sets of high-quality music – ultimately, as rewarding as it was challenging – presented as part of the Sinfonietta's MIX series of cross-genre collaborations.

The first half largely had the 18-strong orchestra (conducted with no little verve by Geoffrey Paterson) in fluid, lively interaction with Neset and his current quartet featuring Ivo Neame (p), Petter Eldh (b) and Anton Eger (d): all were in top form. Three pieces from Snowmelt were played: Prologue, Arches Of Nature and The Storm Is Over.

The solo soprano reading of Prologue largely eschewed the judicious cultivation of overtones which marks the Garbarek-like version on the album, but otherwise stayed faithful to the mood and pace of the original, evincing already the technical command soon to be further evident in Neset's virtuosic, beautifully rounded tenor lines. The music quickly moved up several gears, with much clipped cross-phrasing and driving, staccato/ostinato figures shared by and swapped between the orchestra and quartet – to such an extent that the eventual brief lyrical coda to The Storm Is Over came as something of a relief.

Had that been the end of the concert, I would have felt greatly stimulated, especially by the range of voicings from the Sinfonietta, which included some lovely touches on bassoon. But I would also have felt a touch disappointed – by the sheer intensity of the music, which for the most part I found more impressive in its assiduous complexity of conception and lucidity of execution (with the scrupulously attentive Neame, Eldh and Eger excellent throughout) than poetically engaging.

The second set, however, was indeed something else: absolutely outstanding, with music that was intelligently diverse, well-paced, challenging and yet – above all – poetically compelling. Once again, things began with Neset solo, this time with the Norwegian on tenor for a reading of Old Poison. Clipped fragments of rocking phrases – distant cousin to the blues – were built up and up, courtesy of circular breathing. An increasing complexity and intensity of tone, phrase and rhythm were leavened by welcome touches of humour, the piece presaging the variegated pleasures to come.

The opening title track of a previous Neset album, Birds, then saw Neset (on soprano) and his group burn in the sort of clipped, cross-accented way that stays always on the post-rock edge of swing, with tremendous, even frantic (yet ultra-disciplined) energy, group empathy and – again – welcome touches of humour.

The Sinfonietta then came back on stage for the final two pieces, Math Of Mars from the Birds album and the title track from Snowmelt. Neset volunteered that these British concerts were the first occasions he had performed Math of Mars live, certainly in this arrangement. He delivered a quite mesmeric performance on tenor, building up his lines again and again to the sort of keening and affirmative intensity that brought Brecker or mid-to-late Coltrane to mind, albeit within a most distinctive rhythmic and harmonic framework.

Full justice was then done to Snowmelt, with crisp pizzicato orchestral figures meshing superbly with the quartet's phrasing and the heart-tugging coda precipitating massive applause and many a cry for an encore. This the engagingly amiable Neset and his cohorts duly supplied, rounding out an exceptional evening.

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