REVIEW: ‘A New Dawn’ – Marius Neset

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

mariusneset.info

ACT Music – 9930-2 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Nocturnes and Visions’ – Huw Warren

Nocturnes_300dpi

THE PIANISTIC VOICE of Huw Warren has, over the years, been a source of joy. His discography alone points to an exploratory spirit whose expertise in coalescing jazz, classical and world music has illuminated so many projects – from Perfect Houseplants and Quercus to his own solo outings and ensembles, and as a major contributor to albums by June Tabor, Maria Pia de Vito and Christine Tobin. So when this particularly intimate and personal recording was first mooted, many months ago, its ‘wait in the wings’ was monitored with keen anticipation. 

Recorded in the Cardiff University Concert Hall, most of this album’s twelve pieces are Warren’s own compositions and, as such, might easily portray the mercurial beauty of his beloved North West Wales environs – steep, harshly angular slate panoramas of quarries contrasting with sparkling lynns which quietly nestle between soaring green valleys. Yet, typically, there are also infusions of South American vivacity, as well as English pastorale/salon music, flashes of prog rock and a reverence for J S Bach, with the feeling that it’ll take some, very enjoyable time to delve into all of their fine details.

In fact, it’s finesse which is the hallmark of Warren’s varied musical expressions, whatever the tempo. Hermeto Pascoal’s O Farol Que Nos Guia is lavished with both a grandeur and a lyricism which flows like a mountain stream, whilst Brazilian dance is celebrated in his own Against the Odds, full of memorable, ornamented melodies and leaping cacuriá-style rhythms. The pianist’s intriguing titles ( à la ‘Hundreds of Things a Boy Can Make’) continue with The Book of Strange New Things, a lush, mystical interlude leading to EE whose light-hearted elegance suggests Sir Edward Elgar’s cycling jaunts across the Malvern Hills – somehow Huw Warren’s chromatic melodies capture the essence of the composer’s genteel miniatures, but with a nod to his great symphonic works. And a six-minute interpretation of Bach’s Prelude No. 8 in E flat minor (BWV 853) (also recalling the Modern Jazz Quartet’s impression of the same) finds Warren romantically colouring each twilight line whilst teasing out those spine-tingling falling-bass phrases.

Brief, scree-sliding adventure Onwards and Sideways is reminiscent of both Ginastera and Keith Emerson; Dinorwig Dreams references the huge former quarry in Warren’s locale with bright, bustling activity and then quieter reflections of its past; and impressively darting tango, The Bulgarian Stretch, is a stand-out maelstrom of whirling high lines and Bachian glints. Rolling Fernhill feels like a jazz piano classic from a distant memory, its beautiful dancing tune complemented by lush, sunlit chords. There are two tender tributes – Up There (for much-missed pianist John Taylor) and Pure (dedicated to Warren’s brother-in-law), whilst, across eight minutes, the emotional rubato of Noturna (by Brazilian guitarist/composer, Guinga) is exquisitely felt – and received.

The title Nocturnes and Visions is spot on. Interpret these 53 minutes as a private piano performance to savour, to take to your heart… to imagine your own, individual landscapes. And I absolutely recommend the view.

Released on CD on 26 March 2018, as well as a digital download, and available from Bandcamp.

 

Huw Warren piano

huwwarren.co.uk

Maizeh Music – MM1805 (2018)

‘A Room Somewhere’ – Liam Noble

LiamNoble

LISTENING BACK through the CD collection of recent years, it’s the inquiring pianism of Liam Noble that provides an edge to recordings by the likes of Mark Lockheart, Julian Siegel, Alex Garnett and the delightfully anarchic Pigfoot.

As an educator, Noble no doubt inspires the same satisfying, left-field spirit of creativity in others, whilst his 2009 trio ‘take’ on Dave Brubeck’s work was hailed by the late, great man as “an inspiration and a challenge for me to carry on in the avenues that you have opened. I’ve never gone so far into the unknown as you three but I have opened the door and peeked in. Your CD is an invitation to enter.

Now, with his first solo release in 20 years, the pianist quite remarkably reveals his intentional avoidance of writing music for the two-day studio session. And whilst such ultimate freedom in improvisation might initially seem disconcerting, the recorded opportunity to re-visit these imaginings provides the intrigue (Noble likening his deconstructed interpretations of familiar tunes to slalom skiing: “Taking out all the poles, only a bare slope remains. So I leave some in, but try to surprise myself (and the listener) about where they are”).

It’s a fascinating course to traverse, the recognisable melody of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly (the ‘room somewhere’ from My Fair Lady) coming more clearly into view towards the finishing line, once Noble has freestyled obliquely. Through its sparseness and melancholy, Paul Simon’s Tenderness is easily discerned, though flecked with sumptuous, alternative chordal colour and sensitive rubato; and Noble’s bubbling solo piano variation of Directions is striking in its acoustic interpretation of Joe Zawinul’s electronic, early fusion abstractness. Classic There Is No Greater Love swaggers and swings brightly (imagine an animated and varied conversation between Ellington and Monk) – and here, as frequently throughout the album’s sequence, the urge to replay and catch new detail is compelling. Indeed, Thelonious Monk’s own Round Midnight hides amongst the shadows in Noble’s considered ruminations, demanding careful attention.

The memory of the late, great Kenny Wheeler is honoured in a bustling reading of Sophie (from Music for Large & Small Ensembles); and standard Body and Soul is the subject of perhaps the most impressionistic of all of the pianist’s concepts, initially far removed from any thoughts of Louis or Billie – yet it slowly and delicately unfurls to reveal its beauteous jazz hues. Six White Horses is a real ear-grabber, with Noble simulating so well the US Country feel of the galloping, banjo-accompanied original, especially through judicious internal muting of the piano strings.

And then there are Noble’s own creations – Major Minor, which rings to deep-end prepared piano and percussive, Ginastera-like flair; Now, whose chiming harmonics are a joy (with Debussian overdub melodic variation Now and Then); and I Wish Played Guitar, its magnificently disturbed undertow reflecting the title.

Quite what Sir Ed (and Lady Elgar) might think of the pianist’s closing “tinkering” with their engagement celebration piece, Salut d’Amour… well, I could probably guess! But, though it takes far more liberties than Ken Russell’s classic Monitor movie of the early ’60s, it does reveal a deep understanding of the salon favourite’s harmonic structure – and ‘Edu’ enjoyed a jape or two.

So, what of the macaw sharing the cover art spotlight? It’s Liam’s “accomplice” – a visual metaphor for the colourful unpredictability of it all. Mr Brubeck would surely recommend ‘peeking in and entering.’

Released on 25 May 2015 – on Basho Records – A Room Somewhere is available from JazzCDs and all good jazz outlets.

 

Liam Noble piano

liamnoble.co.uk

Basho Records – SRCD 48-2 (2015)