SAFE TO SAY, in these uncertain times, we’re all looking for that silver lining; or, in the case of acclaimed Norwegian tenor saxophonist Marius Neset, the gilt-edged promise of A New Dawn.
Over the last decade or so, Neset has produced an extraordinary catalogue of original work – a distinctive melange of contemporary jazz and Scandinavian folk – often overloading the senses with complex, dizzying arrangements for small and large forces (the latter, in 2020 big band creation, Tributes). But as we know, the pandemic’s restrictions have dramatically shifted the current artistic landscape, with numerous ‘lockdown’ recordings appearing as musicians have sought alternative ways to express their artistry and keep their craft, technique and livelihoods on track. For the saxophonist, this global situation provided the opportunity to fulfil a long-held ambition – to record an album of solo tenor explorations (some of which he had originally written for band or symphony orchestra) without overdubs or effects. He describes it as “an amazing challenge – and also a bit scary: I cannot lean back on a rhythm section or another player, I am completely responsible for every little detail in the music myself”.
The proposition of a single horn player presenting an entire recording of solo material may not, initially, seem entirely tantalising. But those who can cast their mind back to 2011 debut Golden Xplosion – and his astounding live sets – will know that ‘unaccompanied’ in Neset’s world is anything but. Captured earlier this year, A New Dawn celebrates those extraordinary (dare it be said, unique) capabilities which naturally, over time, have been developed and honed into the bewildering wonder heard across these nine self-composed tracks. It’s an engaging display of melodic, rhythmic and chordal prowess – ‘chordal’, because Neset’s signature wizardry in stating or implying key signatures and progressions, through agile employment of ‘arpeggioed’ phrases and harmonics, is pivotal to this album’s success.
Those attributes can clearly be heard in the opening title track, where melodic phrases (in thirds, including bass line!) push it towards pop ballad territory, though also including Neset’s seemingly effortless improvisations. Theme from Manmade crackles like popcorn, its complex, bopping structure unfathomable in terms of such deft execution, and with the snatched breathing and rapidity of key clicks clearly audible. Taste of Spring unfurls, fern-like, in the lower registers before gradually climbing towards the sun with preening optimism and astonishing fluidity. In that vein, folk dance Brighter Times creates wondrous, gruff chordal sequences from harmonics, even hinting at a bluesy, Caribbean vibe; and with such richness, it’s easy to envisage one of Neset’s sumptuous big band arrangements piling in, midway.
Two numbers from that decade-old golden debut (with Django Bates, Jasper Høiby and Anton Eger) are reinterpreted. Old Poison (XL) rises from its impudent, slow beginnings (including a sneaky “look at me” at 0:38) into an audicious, mesmeric climax whose transcription would no doubt be mindblowing to view. Equally impertinent, groove-chasing The Real Ysj squeaks and rollercoasters at a hair-raising tempo. Back nearer terra firma, chirpy folksong A Day in the Sparrow’s Life is another ‘self-accompanied’ delight, its suggested verse-and-chorus structure pausing for contemplation before one of Neset’s most scintillating full-band impressions. Morning Mist’s murky trudge is shot through with shrill tenor wails and screams, but amidst it all is also the most beautifully wistful descending figure; and alpenhorn-hued multiphonics herald Theme from Every Little Step, a near-seven-minute paean reminiscent of Neset’s sublime work with tubist Daniel Herskedal, his mind wandering free.
Describing the “beautiful, sunny and very cold winter day” on which this recording was created, in a studio close to his Oslo home – while also contemplating the good and simple things in life: walking, running, skiing and being with family – Marius Neset’s solitary performances look ahead to brighter days. The spirit and grace of A New Dawn can point us in that direction, too.
Released on 30 April 2021 and available from ACT Music.
Marius Neset tenor saxophone, compositions
ACT Music – 9930-2 (2021)