An ecstatic set from Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset, Kings Place, London - review

Jazz saxophonist Marius Neset
Jazz saxophonist Marius Neset

Marius Neset, Kings Place, London N1 ★★★★★

Marius Neset has been described as "the greatest Norwegian jazz saxophonist since Jan Garbarek". Some of us might think that’s damning with faint praise. True he doesn’t yet have Garbarek’s cult status, and he doesn’t go in for those endless drifting "spiritual" pieces that are Garbarek’s trademark. He’s far too thrillingly energised for that. In the way that he braces his muscular frame before playing a note and then lets forth agile, leaping phrases in virtuoso streams, Neset reminds one of similarly muscular saxophonists such as Peter Brötzman or Steve Coleman.

Yet between the virtuoso flurries, the music that emerged from that burnished horn was often disarmingly lyrical. One number, Prague’s Ballet – taken like most of the numbers from Neset’s recent self-composed album Circle of Chimes – was classically poised in its phrases, though the neat edges were progressively softened by little tendrils of improvised melody from Neset’s saxophone, echoed eventually by Ivo Neame at the piano.

The world of Grieg’s salon pieces wasn’t far away, which isn’t surprising as Neset has admitted to a fondness for his famous compatriot. Grieg was fascinated by the sound of bells, and his shade may have inspired the opening piece Satellite. It began with a sound familiar from Sunday mornings of church bells moving in and out of rhythmic phase, an effect cleverly evoked by percussionist Jim Hart on tubular bells. Little by little the other members of the quintet joined in with their own repeating patterns.

It sounds "atmospheric" but the way that pianist Ivo Neame set his stealthy repeating bass athwart the harmony was so intriguing to the ear that bells were soon forgotten. It was an example of the way that Neset likes to take an abstract idea and see where it will lead him. Another was the hectically repeated monotone that began another number. Gradually the single note unfurled into melody which seemed somewhat dour, until the moment when marimba player Jim Hart and bassist Petter Eldh cast a bright and totally expected harmonic light on it.

That was one highlight of the evening. Another came in the final number, at the moment when it reached a whirlwind climax. Neset and three members of his superb quintet flung out a sly repeated closing phrase, which drummer Anton Eger kept interrupting with furious torrents of beats. Wit, harmonic pungency and sheer physical excitement came together in one ecstatic moment.

Marius Neset’s Circle of Chimes is released on ACT

Marc Ribot, Café Oto, London E8 ★★★★☆

Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot

Among leading American jazz guitarists, Marc Ribot is the maverick. Anyone who can be found backing Elvis Costello, John Zorn and Tom Waits must be hard to be pin down stylistically, but Ribot ranges even further than that. He has spent time in the wilds of free improvisation alongside such rugged explorers as Derek Bailey, and reveres the memory of Albert Ayler, pioneer of an ecstatic form of free jazz. And yet he loves Cuban dance music, founded a band called Los Cubanos Prostizos (Prosthetic Cubans), and has declared he’d like nothing better than to play in a heaving dance club all night.

So one hardly knew what to expect at Monday night’s gig, the first of a two-night residency at that home of all things leftfield, Café Oto, in Dalston, East London – except that it wouldn’t be slick. He eschewed the fancy range of instruments favoured by his more polished peers such as Bill Frisell, and played practically the whole evening on one antique-looking acoustic instrument with a sound that was wiry and far from seductive. Nor did he dazzle us with fast fingerwork – Ribot admits he’s far from being a conventional virtuoso.

And yet in its stubborn, questing, deliberately awkward way, the evening was fascinating and hugely rewarding. The first number was based on a melody by Haitian guitarist composer Frantz Casseus, with whom Ribot studied, but it was prefaced by  a long exploratory introduction, which digressed into sly quotations from Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere, and at one point latched in a mood of angry insistence on to the guitar’s bottom E string.

Marc Ribot has backed Elvis Costello, John Zorn and Tom Waits - Credit: Noise Inc Noise
Marc Ribot has backed Elvis Costello, John Zorn and Tom Waits Credit: Noise Inc Noise

There were many moments like this one, where Ribot launched off in familiar idiom, and then by slow degrees – or a disconcerting leap – took the music somewhere fiercely abstract. But before long this digression into the trackless virgin territory would emerge once again into something familiar: a little vamping stride-like figure, say, or a bluesy bass. The world of ordinary music was never abandoned for long, which is what gave each number its very human character.

The only exception to this was Ribot’s arrangement of John Cage’s Some of the Harmony of Maine, a slow-moving cut-and-paste montage of bits of hymn tunes, which he played on an electric guitar with vast booming feedback. It was intriguing, but its purism seemed alien to Ribot’s charmingly impure musical world, in which a sentimental melody by Billy Strayhorn and abstract almost-noise can live happily side-by-side. IH

Marc Ribot’s avant-rock trio Ceramic Dog releases a new album in the Spring.