Marius Neset & London Sinfonietta – Viaduct
(ACT 9048-2. Album review by Rob Mallows)
Peanut butter and jam (or jelly, if you’re American). On the face of it, it shouldn’t make sense in a sandwich: the sweet smoothness of the jam, and the stick, nutty crunchiness of the peanut butter, seem poles apart in flavour and texture. Yet, you put them together in between two slices of sliced white bread, and it becomes a ‘thing’ that, while not to everyone’s taste, certainly offers a unique taste sensation.
This album is something of a PB & J. Jazz and classical music. Instinctively, they ought not to necessarily work together: jazz musicians and classical players are dramatically different in how they use their brains according to a 2018 study by the Max Planck Institute. Classical is largely about what’s on the sheet music; jazz is often about what’s not. Classical musicians are frequently accused of looking down their noses at jazz players. It doesn’t seem fertile territory.
Yet Norwegian sax player and composer Marius Neset is one of those composers who seems able to brings together the best of both worlds, following in the footsteps of greats like Leonard Bernstein, Charles Mingus, Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland and bridging this divide.
I’m a recent convert to Neset’s playing, having been playing obsessively – and I mean twice-a-day, seven-days-a-week-obsessively – Morten Schantz’s Godspeed album, on which Neset’s playing on tenor and alto sax is a glorious exposition of all that’s good in contemporary jazz. It’s the best thing I’ve heard over the year and I’ve since scrambled to listen to his other jazz output.
Viaduct is a pretty bold claim by Neset to rule the roost in both jazz and classical. It comprises two highly composed suites originally written for the Konigsberg Jazz Festival, and brings together Neset’s established jazz quintet – Ivo Neame (piano) and Anton Eger (drums) of Phronesis, vibraphonist Jim Hart, and bassist Petter Eldh – with the London Sinfonietta under Geoffrey Patterson’s baton.
It’s a world away from Godspeed and out of my usual comfort zone. But, it’s a testament to Neset’s compositional skill that I think both classical and jazz fans will find plenty to raise their hats to in this album. Fans of classical jazz cross-over will, I imagine, be over the moon.
Part one of the album has six tracks, imaginatively named Viaduct Part 1a, Viaduct Part 1b… (you get the picture). Neset pulls in moods reflecting the aforesaid giants of 20th century classical and combines a romanticism with a cooler, sparse Nordic feel across this first part.
It’s mixtures all around, fitting for a crossover – soft – such as the opening bars of the first track when Eldh’s union bass is interrupted by the sultriest of strings – and loud; calming and thrilling, such as when Neset and the Sinfonietta combine for a morse code-ish movement in the second track; highly composed and excitingly free, as evidenced by the creative abandon displayed by Eger on almost every track.
Neither quintet or Sinfonietta feels the need to ‘stay in their lane’ and both groups play happily in the other’s arena. So seamless is the playing that you can’t see the join when the music trips from obviously classical sentiments to the dirtiest of jazz breaks. It is voluminous and damned thrilling to boot in places. Some of the more obvious classical movements, such as the third track, palled a bit, mostly because they came after real thrills.
The second part is more obviously quintet-focused, with greater prominence for Hart’s vibes I felt. Normally, I can’t stand the vibraphone, but in this context, such was Hart’s playing – and the canvas Neset gave him to paint on – that I soon forgot I don’t like the sound! He, Eger and Neame combined well together in the in middle section of Viaduct Part 2a, when the Sinfonietta and Neset took a rest. On 2b, Neame’s playing is top notch; he throws in some devilishly dark chords as well as trippy runs up and down the 88 keys.
This album is, to use football parlance, a game of two halves, and the second part – the more obviously jazz – was what made me sit up and notice. But actually, like a good appetiser, the more austere and focused classical tinge of part one does set the listener up for the more expansive feel of Part Two.
The album is called Viaduct because, as Neset notes in the press release, “it’s about a connection to different musical ideas… about how you go from one world to another and it’s all about the way things are connected.” As someone who stands firmly in the jazz camp and – apart from a few Shostakovich and Mahler albums, rarely listens to anything with a classical theme – I was glad to cross the divide with Neset’s help.