It begins with what sounds like morse code – but before too long it has already broken into a curiously angular folk dance. Marius Neset, the young, prodigiously gifted Norwegian saxophonist whose outstanding Golden Xplosion album won deserved plaudits last year, has taken a quantum leap forward with this album’s title track. His music is frantic and energised, but somehow also carefully orchestrated – and it is the stronger sense of arrangement here (for a larger ensemble this time round featuring both Ivo Neame on piano and accordion and the great vibes player Jim Hart) that makes this feel like a major progression.
Birds is 10 minutes of sheer delight – the various parts of the ensemble interacting with each other in a rhythmically rigorous manner that requires total focus and accuracy. The group sounds so assured that they come together as one – much like two hands speaking to each other across a piano. It darts and dives like this for a while, before taking an unexpected turn for more impressionistic ideas, out of which another radical, energetic groove gradually tumbles. As on Golden Xplosion, drummer Anton Eger and bassist Jasper Høiby maintain security with playing that is both adventurous and assured. Also forming the core of Phronesis, Eger and Høiby may be the most thrilling rhythm section in European contemporary jazz.
Whilst Neset frequently generates excitement through rhythmic devices and unpredictable, shifting grooves, he is also adept with harmony and melody. Across much of Birds, Neset shows a much keener interest in colour and texture, in a way that adds to an already impressive armoury of ideas. The way that the title track finishes with an orchestral flourish that gradually mutates into the rich, considered arrangement of Reprise suggests that sequencing has also been carefully considered. Whereas the bright, melodic and accessible Angel Of The North seemed to appear from out of nowhere at the tail end of Golden Xplosion, Birds more carefully integrates its moments of calm and contemplation at the heart of the album. The exhilarating Fanfare seems to neatly summarise this music’s most crucial features and ideas.
There is more space in the music here than on Golden Xplosion. Some of this is afforded by the greater range in the instrumentation – Hart’s bright, beautiful solo on Boxing encourages a more delicate touch in the accompaniment, as well as some gloriously memorable backing figures from Neset. He has also paid closer attention to timbre and sound (compare his chattering, bird-like squawk at the beginning of Boxing with his near-romantic approach to the beautiful introduction to Portuguese Windmill or the multi-layered and meditative tones on The Place Of Welcome). Sometimes there are dazzling contrasts and juxtapositions all contained within one composition. Portuguese Windmill eventually explodes into a dazzling spectrum of bright colours and nimble, agile dancing lines; it has a powerful sense of movement, as does Fields Of Clubs, which incorporates both affecting, melodic lines and free-flowing, rapid-fire phrasing.
The influence of European folk music, particularly from dances, seems prominent here, and much of the album feels like birds singing in flight. The folk element contrasts effectively with the more directly jazz-informed lines brought to the table by Jim Hart. The whole ensemble blends effortlessly and handles some exceedingly complex material with grace and care. There is plenty of astounding technique on display on Birds, and a fair bit of mathematics too in the music’s intricate structures, but there’s also real musicality, flair and feeling. It’s far too early in Neset’s career for him to be making masterpieces, but Birds already feels like one.