“This album marks a new phase,” says Marius Neset. “It was the last thing I did in Copenhagen, which has been my life for the past seventeen years.” In late 2019 the saxophonist and composer moved from the Danish capital to return to his native Norway. In “Tributes”, recorded shortly before he left, he marks this point of transition with music that has astonishing freshness – and unmistakably vivid feelings of joy and fulfilment.
The Norwegian saxophonist was already making his mark while still a student at the beginning of those Copenhagen years. This was a player of “hurtling virtuosity” (Guardian) for whom there seemed to be no technical barriers on the instrument, and his star has continued to rise ever since. In 2016 he was included in Downbeat magazine’s list of "25 for the Future", the first time a musician based in Europe had received this accolade. More recently his prowess as a composer has also been to the fore. Neset has the skill and the focus to conceive and build extensive musical structures from simple ideas. “Tributes” is indeed conceived as a continuous sequence. His music is nonetheless always full of incident, surprises and excitement. Having written substantial works for chamber orchestras, this collaboration with the DR Big Band has a different, and arguably more natural feel to it. As Neset says: “Working with jazz musicians again, it’s more like my home. I know these musicians well from my time in Copenhagen, and I wanted to get back to the joy of playing, to the feeling of each player having freedom.”
The album opens with the two-part composition "Bicycle Town", a homage to Copenhagen. "I always cycled there. A rhythmic and melodic idea came to me, and it seemed to me to be the musical equivalent of biking. I then developed it with the orchestra." It starts off gently and becomes an increasingly wild ride. It is as if a single cyclist sets off and gradually finds he is being joined by more and more people with similar ideas, until a multiform throng of cyclists grows into a single organism, which in the end – as the music concludes in a march motif – triumphs over gravity. It is a complete tour de force of rising intensity, led from the front by Neset's ecstatic saxophone playing.
The title track "Tribute" is, on one level, just a gentle little feature for DR Big Band soprano saxophonist Hans Ulrik, but appearances can be deceptive: compositionally Neset has managed to combine several contrasting musical worlds into its span of not much more than five minutes. There are quotes from the Allegretto of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, one from the Adagio of Mahler 9, plus allusions to Queen (Love of My Life), to Grieg and Brad Mehldau. "Farewell" and "Leaving the Dock" follow. Both tracks allude to the theme of saying goodbye to Copenhagen, with the latter giving extended solo spots to both trumpeter Mads La Cour and pianist Henrik Gunde. The album comes to a magical and playful close in the three-part "Childrens Day". "It's the part of the album I composed first, but it's also the perfect finale," says Neset. Children’s Day is a tradition in Norway, and the rising calypso-like figure that brings the composition to life after a short prologue came into Neset’s mind after a party in honour of his young nephew. This extended structure brings to the fore the playing of Per Gade on guitar and Andres Gaardmand on baritone sax in the first section, and then Kaspar Vadsholt on bass and Gerard Presencer on trumpet in the second. Celebrating the joy that small children bring to the world is another and very current theme for Neset: “I became a father for the first time in January 2020.”
An important contributor to "Tributes" is Japan-born, New York-based composer and arranger Miho Hazama. "She was fantastic to work with," says Neset. "She came with great suggestions – different tone colours like the soft woodwinds on Tribute". Hazama was, incidentally, also included alongside Neset in the 2016 "25 for the Future" list by Downbeat, and was recently appointed chief conductor of the DR Big Band.
“Tributes” is an album where everything seems to click in a particularly happy and enjoyable way. Neset has found an ideal context – and the right musicians – to mark the end of one chapter in his life and to turn the page for the beginning of another.