A Norwegian living in Denmark landed in Birmingham, bearing his fearsome two-horned prong-of-attack. Martin Longley diced with death on the front row.
Not an artist who’s interested in stasis, the Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset spent most of two sets unveiling pieces from his new Pinball album, which was released at the beginning of 2015. It’s his fourth recording, and Neset seems set on making this a pleasingly prolific annual event.
The album features Jim Hart (vibraphone/marimba) and Petter Eldh (bass), but they were also joined for this gig by a pair of replacement touring band members, Magnus Hjorth (piano) and Josh Blackmore (drums). Even so, this was immediately remarkable as an outfit that already knows the material intimately, embarking on a journey of exploration and interpretation, driven hard (but positively) by their leader.
Neset might not be a writer of memorable or diverse tunes, and he might not be too interested in dynamic extremes of light and shade, but this doesn’t matter so much when his succession of astounding improvisations hurtle along, bending theme into elaboration, weaving in and out of the structure, to the extent that the solo becomes the melody, and such relationships are often inextricable.
His bandmates supported this flow with their own linear inventions, and this monomania was consistently compelling for the two hours or so of action. The pairing of Hjorth and Hart allowed an abundance of shared sonic terrain to be probed, with the latter shifting regularly from metal to wood, adding yet another element.
Neset was wired up for the duration, moving from tenor to soprano, usually with speedy changeovers and precise goals. He’s continuing the funky-flecked soulfulness legacy of Michael Brecker, constructing elaborate phrases which ascend through predictable levels of development, reaching for their inevitable climax. The excitement lay in guessing how high this could possibly reach.
Even if the pathway could be discerned in advance, this didn’t remove any of the dramatic tension. Neset decorated his statements with fingerings that often worked against his breath, creating curt attacks and decays of a note-run. There were only a few slower, quieter numbers. A funkier thrust has strengthened in his new compositions, and the repeats of minimalism are present, not least with some outbreaks of complex group clapping that suggested an immersion in the soundworld of Steve Reich.