Neck of the Woods
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An album that increases its appeal with repeated listening. Less impactful than Neset's earlier “Golden Xplosion” it nonetheless reveals its own quieter, but no less impressive, rewards.
Daniel Herskedal & Marius Neset
“Neck of the Woods”
(Edition Records EDN1034)
Of these two Norwegian musicians saxophonist Marius Neset is probably best known to British audiences. His 2011 début for Edition “Golden Xplosion” was a tremendous critical success and Neset’s dynamic live shows quickly cemented his reputation as a rising star of European jazz, one of the most exciting saxophonists to have emerged for many years. The album revealed Neset to have chops and imagination to spare and there is certain to be a follow up but in the meantime this duo album with tuba player Daniel Herskedal is very different, a quieter but no less ambitious record that draws on Nordic folk and classical traditions. The two musicians are joined on some pieces by the male voices of the Svanholm Singers with soloist Hallvar Djupvik singing beautifully on the traditional folk tune “Eg er Framand”.
It could be argued that “Neck of the Woods” is essentially Herskedal’s album. The tubist contributes the bulk of the original tunes (besides “Eg er Framand the duo also tackle Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding”, which closes the album) and I suspect that the overall concept was originally his vision. The pair met while both were studying at the Rhythmic Conservatoire in Copenhagen under the tutelage of British born composer, keyboardist and educator Django Bates and both were members of Bates’ StoRMChaser Big Band. Bates subsequently appeared on “Golden Xplosion” along with the Phronesis rhythm section of Jasper Hoiby (bass) and Anton Eger (drums) but his place was filled for live performances by either Nick Ramm or Ivo Neame. This album came about following a special project duo performance in a church during a Norwegian jazz festival, the results were so successful that the recording of an album became an inevitability.
Herskedal can perhaps be regarded as Norway’s answer to the UK’s own Oren Marshall, a phenomenally gifted musician with the ability to make the tuba sound totally convincing as a front line instrument. Like Marshall he has both vision and technical ability and he is highly regarded in his homeland. Herskedal produces an astonishing array of sounds throughout the album although the impression is that he makes less use of electronics than Marshall, at least in this context.
The album opens with Herskedal’s title track, one of the pieces that features the twenty strong male vocal ensemble the Svanholm Singers. Herskedal has made no secret of his admiration for his compatriot Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble and that this was a significant influence on his decision to write for voices as part of this project. Here the Singers add grandeur to the soaring saxophones of Neset, the whole thing given depth by the underpinning tuba of the composer. There’s a church like feel to the piece that reflects the project’s genesis in a church performance. Yes, the comparisons with Garbarek are obvious and fans of ECM’s “Officium” series are likely to find much to enjoy here but with Herskedal’s own remarkable tuba contribution firmly placing his own stamp on the music.
Herskedal’s “Preludium” has a gorgeous folk like melody but also has the feel of church music. In the duo’s hands the emphasis is on beauty, space and clarity- the adoration of the melody. Neset’s soprano tone is stunningly pure with Herskedal’s tuba voicings adding richness and depth. Yes, the comparisons with Garbarek are again inevitable, there’s the same emphasis on purity and the distillation of the essence of a sound but there’s no denying the sheer unadorned beauty of “Preludium”.
Also by Herskedal “Lutra Lutra” represents a welcome change of pace with Herskedal’s rapid, Marshall like tuba vamp powering the tune. Neset, on tenor, blows more conventionally jazzy saxophone, sometimes slurring the notes. Herskedal has spoken of an admiration for Arabic and Balkan music and there are elements of this here in a delightfully unadorned duo performance, a genuine musical conversation.
One of the stand out pieces on the album is the duo’s arrangement of the traditional song “Eg er Framand” featuring the beautiful tenor voice of the versatile Hallvar Djupvik, a singer who has performed with the Norwegian National Opera. In this pared down setting Djupvik sounds wonderful, there are no opera style histrionics, and although the lyrics will be incomprehensible to English speaking listeners the piece is still totally immersive and moving. Herskedal’s deeply breathy tuba and subtle electronic enhancements provide the backdrop for Neset’s incisive saxophone and Djupvik’s pure, immaculately controlled but emotive vocals.
Herskedal’s “The Shepherd” is another intimate duo conversation between Herskedal and Neset, so fleeting you also miss it before the piece segues into Neset’s joyous “Ara’s Dance” led by his airy sax pirouetting above Herskedal’s astonishingly agile and nimble tuba.
Herskedal’s “The Christmas Song” marks an appropriate return for the Svanholm Singers who provide a choral backdrop for Neset’s saxophone ruminations. It’s as beautiful as one might expect but behind the serenity there’s also a darker element as evidenced by a brooding tuba led coda.
Earthy, breathy tuba also leads off Herskedal’s sinister “Dragon’s Eye”. The composer produces some astonishing breath generated sounds here, the piece is pretty much a showcase for him. Fans of the equally extraordinary Oren Marshall will have some idea what to expect.
Following this it is perhaps only appropriate that a passage of solo saxophone presages Neset’s “Swan Island”, the third piece featuring the voices of the Svanholm Singers. Neset’s playing and writing here is very different to the bravura exhibited on “Golden Xplosion”. There is less focus on virtuosity with the emphasis instead on nuance, texture and mood building. That said the piece does possess a certain grandeur courtesy of the massed, soaring voices of the choir, a subtle reminder of Neset’s ambition.
The album closes with a delightfully intimate duo reading of Abdullah Ibtahim’s “The Wedding” from the South African pianist’s classic “Water From An Ancient Well Album”. Herskedal and Neset extract the maximum beauty from Ibrahim’s lovely folk melody, there’s an almost zen like sense of calm about their rendition.
Although less obviously accessible than Neset’s “Golden Xplosion” “Neck of the Woods” should still appeal to a substantial audience, particularly fans of Jan Garbarek and listeners to Radio 3’s Late Junction. I’ve not heard the programme lately but can imagine this album becoming something of a favourite. “Neck of the Woods” helps to consolidate Marius Neset’s reputation and is a timely reminder of just how versatile a musician he is. Herskedal represents an exciting new discovery for British audiences. He’s going to be a name well worth keeping an eye on.
“Neck of the Woods” is an album that increases its appeal with repeated listening. Less impactful than “Golden Xplosion” it nonetheless reveals its own quieter, but no less impressive, rewards.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the duo’s abilities will be to see them live. Herskedal and Neset will perform three UK shows in September 2012;
16th September – Kings Place, London (part of the Edition Records Festival)
17th September – St. George’s, Bristol (free event)
18th September – Dempsey’s, Cardiff (supporting Asaf Sirkis and Eyal Maoz) http://www.jazzatdempseys.org.uk
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