In days gone by, major jazz artists spoke of recording an album with strings as being one of their ambitions, as though it raised jazz to another level. It was not that jazz needed to be elevated in this way, but perhaps it was not recognized as the art form that it is now.
But most of the those albums – Charlie Parker with Strings (1950), Chet Baker And Strings (1954), to name but two – were recorded with outside arrangers, many of whom had never even met the jazz musician in question.
Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset has far bolder goals as a composer. He demonstrated his skills as a composer and arranger on Birds, his fourth album, back in 2012, which featured flute, French horn, trombone and tuba. Around this time, he was also influenced by witnessing a performance of Berg’s opera, Lulu, an experience that deeply affected his musical consciousness.
Snowfelt is the culmination of three years of meticulous planning. The Oslo Sinfonietta commissioned a fifteen-minute piece for solo saxophone, chamber orchestra and singers in early 2013. This sowed the seeds for a more ambitious project, working with a larger body of strings, but also incorporating his jazz quartet, which would provide much of the rhythm.
The bulk of the album consists of the multi-part Arches Of Nature. As a composer, Neset tries to seek the balance between order and chaos, noting that whilst he is a planner, he thrives when working with musicians such as pianist Ivo Neame (Phronesis), who prefer more freedom. For the most part, order wins out, with complex, tight arrangements that demand razor-sharp precision from the musicians. Some pieces start with a relatively simple melodic line, which are then transformed into a variety of different moods as they are reinterpreted by the different members of the Sinfonietta.
If this sounds too intricate, too ornate for some jazz fans, it should be noted that there is an emotional depth to some of Neset’s writing that results in some quite sublime moments. Moreover, he plays to strength of his own band, leaving room for the occasional fine solo by Neame, who impresses, as always, as does Neset's own playing, on tenor and soprano saxophones.
The only issue I had was that I sometimes felt that certain themes should have been given more space to develop. The way the strings gradually build on part six, Paradise, is quite thrilling, for example, but this leads straight into the next part, Rainbows. It sometimes feels as though Neset is trying to cram too many ideas into the composition, particularly on Arches Of Nature.
The second part of the album, entitled Snowmelt, is quite stunning, from the Surman-like introduction, to the main composition itself, which is more cohesive than the first part of the album, and showcases Neset’s own playing to particularly good effect.
Snowmelt is a bold, ambitious album, from on of the most exciting musicians on the European jazz scene; it is music that needs and deserves repeated listening, as it reveals fresh details on each occasion. Highly recommended.