It was a liberating moment for large jazz ensembles in general when Carla Bley and Charlie Haden decided, while putting together the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1968, that big bands no longer had to operate according to a policy of strict precision. The informality of the amateur bands assembled for Balkan weddings, Sicilian funerals or Andalucian saints’ day parades seemed more appropriate to the spirit of jazz than the militaristic discipline associated with, say, the Buddy Rich Orchestra. It was something that Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus had always known, but they were thought to be exceptions to the rule that if you have four trumpeters, they should start and finish a phrase as if they were four mouthpieces attached to a single instrument, rather than the voices of four individuals.
Something similar happened in rock music when the Band came along. The voices of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were distinct from each other, each with its own tone and grain. This cross-textured quality set their harmonies apart from those of, say, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, who aimed to produce a unified, homogenised choral sound.
I was thinking about that while listening to the saxophonist Marius Neset and the 11-piece Trondheim Jazz Orchestra perform pieces from their recent ACT album, Lion, at Ronnie Scott’s last night. These conservatory-trained Norwegians are phenomenal technicians, and the compositions Neset has provided for them are complex and challenging, to say the least, but the collective attack of the ensemble has nothing to do with nanosecond exactness and everything to do with the human element of a dozen people playing together. That humanity was the overriding impression left by an hour and a half of exceptional music.
The breadth and subtlety of Neset’s writing for this usual ensemble (two trumpets, trombone, tuba, three saxophones, accordion, piano, bass and drums) demonstrates that he is a musical thinker of great qualities, with a gift for unexpected combinations of instrumental timbres that is handed down from Ellington and Gil Evans (the opening of the ballad titled “Raining”, for instance, was ravishing). His long, often discursive pieces left plenty of room for solos by each of the musicians, all of whom made handsome use of the opportunity. Eivind Loning’s trumpet multiphonics, Eirik Hegdal’s rampaging baritone saxophone (imagine John Surman after swallowing a bag of rusty nails), Jovan Pavlovic’s delicate accordion and Espen Berg’s discreet piano — occupying a clearing that suddenly appeared in the middle of the otherwise densely eventful “Weight of the World” — were outstanding. The individual highlight of the whole night, however, was a long, long bass solo by Petter Eldh, whose energy and inventiveness seemed inexhaustible; somewhere inside my head, his sprung rhythms were still unwinding themselves the next morning.
I don’t think Neset himself is a great improviser yet. He has all the equipment, but in the arc of his solos and his mannerisms — the horn comes out of his mouth and his left hand flies off the keys at regular intervals, while his blond hair flops rather fetchingly as his body flexes in ecstasy — he’s less like a conventional jazz musician than a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band, whose playing always has to build inexorably to a climax guaranteed to lift listeners from their seats. Which, in his case, it does. But once a night is enough. After that it begins to feel predictable. At 29, however, he has time on his side.