The CBSO Centre in Birmingham is a terrific venue for several reasons. Over the years Jazzlines (Birmingham Jazz as was), has hosted some wonderful musicians with their ongoing innovative program of events, not only supporting local artistes but also bringing the finest in contemporary and modern jazz to the city. Personally I have witnessed some memorable performances at the venue, including EST, Andy Sheppard, Chris Bowden’s Dectet, Arild Andersen and many more along the way. There is a common thread among a lot of the acts I have seen at the CBSO, this being the stage at which the artists are at in their own careers. Often the venue and promoters manage to catch the artists when at the most exciting point in their musical development; just well enough known for there to be perhaps a couple of albums under their belts that have aroused much anticipation, yet still at the cutting edge of their musical learning curve so that the music is still fresh and vibrant. This was definitely the case on Friday night as I turned up to the CBSO not entirely sure what to expect from the much talked about saxophonist Marius Neset. Norweigan born and now residing in Copenhagen, Neset has been heralded as one of the most exciting performers to hit the road running in recent years, bringing with him a fierce exuberance and craft rarely matched. And so anticipation was high among the audience; a healthy mix of young and old, as we enjoyed our pre-gig drinks waiting for the band to take to the stage. Neset’s quintet comprised the main man himself on tenor and soprano saxes, Magnus Hjorth on piano, Petter Eldh on double bass, Jim Hart on vibes and marimba, and Josh Blackmore on drums.
Warm applause greeted the band as Neset took his position centre stage. Much of the music performed here was to be from Neset’s new album “Pinball“. With rave reviews already being circulated, expectation was high. And we were not left disappointed. From the opening mellow notes of the first two numbers; “World Song, Parts 1 and 2”, the audience was taken on a polyrhthmic roller-coaster ride of skillfull, world-class, intricate musicianship, combined with high voltage raw energy. As the band moved gracefully through the opening tunes it was clear we were witnessing musicianship of the highest order. The vibes/sax combinations were startling and surprisingly refreshing, Jim Hart adding way more than the colours and textures that one might expect, providing a sunny Caribbean feel. Interaction between all the musicians was at the heart of this performance, with Eldh’s exuberant bass lines bouncing off Blackmore’s inventive drumming and Hjorth’s piano riffs rolling seamlessly into the band-leader’s lyrical, sweeping, waves of sax supremacy, leading into a meeting of minds where all five band members pick up on the riff and drive it back and forth with playful energy. If the first couple of tunes were Andy Sheppard-like in nature, the third number began with a darker, deeper mood, portraying an Alfred Hitchcock-esque suspense. Neset’s seemingly well structured approach to writing doesn’t perhaps allow for long, open improvisation, but what it does do is create a scene and a mood for a piece which gradually builds, before almost deconstructing the tune allowing the band to play harmoniously with the different changes of pace. I sat in awe as the tune developed into a Garbarek tinged Nordik folk tune that, in turn, led into an incredible marimba solo from Hart. Neset has a wonderful tone and this was soon highlighted with deep, soulful, breathy notes that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. However, it’s never more than a few minutes before the subtlety gives way to the high energy, as the performance picks up again with a blistering pace as the band work their way through the well choreographed album title track “Pinball”. Sparks fly from instrument to instrument as the playful nature of this tune eventually leads into a bluesy piano solo from Hjorth, wonderfully underpinned by a drum and bass groove that allows the pianist to switch from blues to classical and back again with consummate ease. The first set ends before the audience has barely had chance to draw breath, with a conversational piece where we hear Neset’s lyrical playing asking questions of the band. The band reply with answers a-plenty as the music twists and turns with all the musicians in exuberant mood.
The 2nd set kicks off with a little European melancholia. There’s a quiet, daring intensity to the music as the classical sounding piano leads us into some wonderful textures of sound created by the drums and vibes with intricate polyrhthyms laying the foundation for a burning, expressionistic saxophone. We then experience the whole band throwing off any remaining shackles as the tune weaves and dances with fervent splendour, gradually building up to boiling point and beyond. For the second time tonight, Neset then switches to Soprano for the tune’s final mouthwatering crescendo. The next piece; “Jaguar”, opens with bass and piano, once again providing more variation here than some bands provide in a lifetime, let alone a 2 hour set. The vibes add yet more magic, and the never-break-sweat drummer brings a wonderful creative edge to the proceedings. Some very precise time signatures develop into a lush, warm, richly performed piece of music. An impressionistic sax/piano duet segways into the next tune which features Neset giving the audience a masterclass in Michael Brecker quick-fire high-octane soloing. And yet another change of pace and mood. All four seasons are rolled into one on “Police”, as Hart provides us with another awesome vibes solo. Hart then goes and sits alongside Blackmore at the drum kit, the two band members working in unison to create a lovely, off-kilter slow groove on a gorgeous ballad. Neset then shows his class as he performs a beautiful solo where he appears to be genuinely lost in the moment; stunning. No time to pause for too much reflection though as we’re led into the final number; a heart-pumping jig and reel – contemporary jazz style. It’s a thunderous stomp and both the band and the audience are lapping it all up. With a compulsive energy Neset breaks into some free, storming, qicker than quick live-wire soloing that leaves the audience breathless. A fitting end to a brilliant gig. Cue the deserved raucous applause as the band take a bow and leave the stage. The lights quickly come on in the auditorium and it’s time to go home and reflect on not just an incredible performance from this tight, inventive band, but also on the fact that once again, the CBSO Centre has hosted a musician entering the peak years of his writing and performing, Marius Neset positively sparkling and reminding us of what it is to witness jazz brilliance in the making.