Marius Neset: “When I Play the Sax, I Want to Be Able to Use It as a Tool for Creative Expression. That’s What I Want to Do Most With My Music”

In this interview, jazz saxophonist Marius Neset details his early career successes as well as a new release called 'Manmade' Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra, recorded with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
marius neset

It’s great to meet with you, Marius. Could you start off by giving us a brief overview of some of your early experiences with music?

I am from Bergen, Norway, and I started playing music at a young age. I started playing drums, piano, and guitar even before I played the saxophone; it was actually the last instrument I learned to play. I was probably nine or so when I first got hooked, and I started taking lessons with my first teacher around 12. He introduced me to Charlie Parker, and that was a huge influence on me. I learned the standards like Donna Lee, Confirmation, and Ornithology, which proved very tough at first, but it was great for my education. When I got more experienced, I worked on them in different keys and gradually grasped the bebop language. I also discovered Michael Brecker during those years, and he had a huge impact on me. Around 15, I switched from alto to tenor because I felt like I could do more of what I wanted musically. I consider myself part of the jazz tradition even though I play all sorts of classical and contemporary music as well.

What did the beginning of your career look like? Was there a moment you could point to where you felt like things really took off?

I started playing gigs at 16 or so. I was very lucky because I had musicians around me who were much older and more skilled than I was. I learned very quickly playing in a live setting with those players. I think something happens on the stage that cannot happen in the practice room in terms of learning. You cannot stop and go back; you have to make it as good as you can, and you have to be listening 100% of the time. When I was 17, I went to study for a semester at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but then I had to return to Norway to finish my second year of high school. From there, I moved to Copenhagen to study at the Conservatory there, and I stuck around for 16 years. The first few years were a whirlwind of playing with different people and practicing like hell. I was also playing a lot of concerts around the world with this group I was a part of called JazzKamikaze. That was the first serious jazz group that I was a part of as a co-leader. Some years we toured up to 30 different countries, but eventually the members of the group drifted in different directions with solo projects. Around that time I met Django Bates who is just an inspiration as a keyboard player and composer. I learned a lot from him in his big band, but also in his smaller group, Human Chain. He also played on one of my first albums, Golden Xplosion, in 2011. That record was the beginning of some very incredible years that I would consider my breakthrough in Europe. I have released 10 albums since then, but it seems to have all come very naturally. In 2016, I did a record with the London Sinfonietta that led to a series of commissions for different orchestras. Since then, I have made probably five records, but they’ve all been commissions. It feels like so long since I’ve actually done a record where I pick my own band. I’ve learned so much from these experiences, but I’m also very excited to get back to putting together my own group.

What is your experience with being a versatile musician? How has that helped your career?

I have benefited from being versatile and playing in lots of different styles, but that’s just me. I really admire people who are the best at their craft, and I have a lot of respect for them. I have been composing since I was a kid, and I think that forms an important part of my identity. When I play the sax, I want to be able to use it as a tool for creative expression. That’s what I want to do most with my music. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is very fulfilling to be able to have my own voice that I can express myself with.

Another interesting thing I have noticed is that over the last 10 years, my composing has started to come out in my improvisations. I used to practice a lot of scales, arpeggios, licks, etc, but the last 10 years have been so much more focused on creating rather than trying to recreate. I always compose with the sax in my hand, and I work to build the music around that. All my projects are connected by that through-line, and I find it makes my creations much more personal.

I remember being struck some time ago when Django told me my improvisations sounded much different from my compositions. He had a point, and I thought, “Why?” His suggestion was to combine my improvisational language with my compositions to make it all as one. That exchange really sent me in a different direction, and I remember being able to hear it in the things I was writing. The first song where I did this was Golden Xplosion. It took a year to write it and master all the rhythmic intricacies, but it was so satisfying. That song marked a new chapter in my musical development.


Tell us about your recording with the Bergen Philharmonic that was released January 7, 2022 of the ‘Manmade’ Concerto for saxophone and orchestra. How did this project come together and what was it like recording with the group?

I was contacted in 2018 by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra because they wanted to commission a 30-minute-long piece. I asked them if they wanted me to write it on my own or if they wanted me to collaborate, and they said they wanted to collaborate. I had played with symphony orchestras before with my own jazz group, but in those settings, you have the drummer to keep time. It will be ok in the end because you can feel the beat. But this? It posed a challenge because of the lack of rhythm section. The first thing to consider was how to spread out the rhythmic figures across the ensemble to make sure the group could hold together. Some places were very interesting because the subdivisions were spread out in the strings and winds as well as the percussion section. That took a lot of creativity, and I changed it a lot of times, but it was worth it in the end because the orchestration ended up being very colorful.

Playing tight rhythmically was the real challenge because, of course, it is an acoustic setting and there could be 20 meters between you and the section holding the time. We really had to experiment with staging with myself and the other players. In the recording, I stood in the middle of the orchestra to get the best placement. I’m also not used to looking at a conductor, so at a certain point, I had to just put my head down and trust that we would all come in together. Also, as much as possible I wanted to avoid the appearance of the orchestra as a backing band to me as soloist. To accomplish this, I divided things up between the strings and winds in groups of three of a larger 15/8 pattern. It eventually started to have a swing feel to it, which was so cool. There was also some Messiaen-inspired stuff in there that turned out really nice. My big thing was trying to make these ideas develop and bloom out of each other so that by the end, there are all these different sounds playing out, but they are all linked by the original idea which, by the end, is completely absent! As for the title of the piece, it was just something I came up with. It’s inspired by lots of different inventions from human beings in the last 200 years. Of course, the music is manmade, but it also has a sense of inspired creativity. If you would like to hear the music, you can do so here.

What future projects do you have on the horizon? Any other things coming up that you would like to promote?

I will start work on an album that will be recorded in Spring 2022 with musicians from all around Europe. I’m not 100% sure of all the members, but it will be a quintet with a horn section. Some parts of it will be inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire, which is going to be so different from this current orchestra project. Hopefully, it will be completed by late Fall 2022, and we will be doing a release tour at the same time. I have a regular quintet that I’ve been playing with for six or seven years now, but I think the sound of this group will be a bit more electric. I have written almost everything for the project, but I’m still tweaking things. Whatever happens, I know that I want to do something new, which is harder and harder these days. I want to do something exciting, something original. That’s where I’m at now, and I’m looking forward to what the new year will hold.


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