Marius Neset: when you’re a sax idol, it’s good to have a bit of ego

The Norwegian saxophonist, not yet 30, is up there with the best of them for sheer inventiveness. Ahead of his trip to Bray, to talks about living the dream and the expectations that come with success

Marius Neset: ‘People coming to the concerts now, they know my music, and they have expectations. But I can’t focus on that’

Being a saxophone idol is a relatively new experience for Marius Neset. Three years ago, the young Norwegian was one among many rising young stars of European jazz. He was just out of Copenhagen's Rhythmic Music Conservatory and still working hard on his saxophone chops. But the release of his debut album, Golden Xplosion in 2011, followed by Birds in 2013 won him rave reviews and certified the emergence of an exceptional talent.

Neset was frequently compared to two of his own idols: fellow Norwegian Jan Garbarek, one of the godfathers of European jazz and progenitor of the cool Scandinavian sound; and Michael Brecker, the red-hot free-blowing American tenor player who died in 2007. It was heady stuff for a young man not yet out of his 20s, and he sounds like he's still getting used to it.

“Of course, it’s a good feeling,” he says. “I’m playing a lot of concerts in front of a lot of people. I’m living my dream. But it’s hard sometimes, because now you have to always deliver. People coming to the concerts now, they know my music, and they have expectations.” He pauses, as if he’s considering this issue for the first time. “But I can’t focus on that. I’m really trying not to do that. I just do what I do.”

Vinicius Cantuaria
Dave Douglas

What Neset does, and does magnificently, is play the saxophone. Drummers may be valued for their time feel, and piano players for their harmonic breadth, but with saxophonists, it’s about melodic invention. Neset is one of those rare birds who seems to sing a new song every time he picks up his horn. There are traces of Brecker, Garbarek and many others, but for sheer inventiveness, Neset’s playing is already up there with the best of them.


He was born in 1985 in Os, near Bergen, on the jagged Atlantic coast of Norway, Neset was always destined to be a musician. His parents are both music teachers, and, before the age of 10, he had already learned to play the Queen songbook on guitar and piano. At 12, his father’s jazz records hit him between the eyes, and he added the saxophone to his list of instruments, transcribing Brecker, Parker and eventually Coltrane. But he kept the piano playing going too, checking out Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.

As a relatively young musician, is having modern, unfettered access to digital music helpful to his development? “I actually just bought a vinyl player, and I started buying vinyls instead of downloads. I think when you buy an LP, you listen a lot harder to it, instead of getting the whole history of music in one weekend. That’s really hard, because there’s just too much and you don’t know what to listen to”.

Django's tutelage
For guidance, the young Neset enrolled at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, and there came under the influence of keyboardist and composer Django Bates. The mercurial Bates, co-founder of Loose Tubes big band, took Neset into his performing group. This exposure to Bates's anarchic creativity seems to have been a catalyst.

“He is a composer like the big classical composers. It’s so detailed, everything that happens in his music, and his creativity is just amazing. I remember I took some of my tunes to him, and he didn’t say so much, but he came up with some new ideas that were just beyond anything I would ever have thought about. I learned a lot just from playing with him, and I think I became a much more creative player.”

The keyboardist is a notable influence on Neset's explosive debut album, particularly in the writing, but even Bates does not outshine his protege's astonishingly mature and original playing. Neset is modest about the praise that was heaped on Golden Xplosion, but is there a big ego hidden behind the modesty? After all, he's a saxophone player – it's all about being out front, playing the big solos, isn't it ?

“I like being a soloist, or whatever it’s called. So yes, I probably do have an ego. I think it’s good to have a little ego, but too much is not good. I also love the contrast, to give the others space. It’s a band, and you give and take. There’s a lot of freedom in my music as well. It’s becoming more and more like a good conversation. I think the best is if the band can be one big ego.”

Choice of projects
His choice of projects suggest a musician following his own muse. His latest release, Lion, is a collaboration with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. "This was an album where I had composed the music specifically for the ensemble, so it's not so much about me as a player. Of course I'm playing as well, but my aim was to compose for the [orchestra]. They're all very different musicians, and it's very interesting when people from different backgrounds can get together and sound like a band.

"The difference from now and three years ago is now there is a lot of different opinions about what I should do next. But I can only listen to where the music takes me. It's not exactly pressure, but I can feel that when I'm making a record now, there are some expectations around it. But I'm not thinking about it when I'm writing. And I'm definitely not thinking about it when I'm playing."

Marius Neset plays Bray Jazz Festival on Saturday


Bray is the little jazz festival that could. Running a festival of contemporary improvised music is a quixotic affair at the best of times, but to keep an artistically credible boutique festival going for 15 years is an impressive feat.

This year’s line-up features a small but stellar list of international improvisers, and the festival also creditably finds room for some up-and-coming local acts. Down the bill, there is a strong world music flavour, and there’s a jazz trail bringing the festival out into the streets of Bray.

Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Vinicius Cantuaria, who played drums with Tropicália maestro Caetano Velosa in the 1970s but now fronts his own deliciously grooving quartet on guitar, opens the festival at the Mermaid Arts Centre on Friday night.

Supergroup This Is How We Fly make an appearance on Saturday evening in Bray Town Hall, before Marius Neset takes the stage at the Mermaid for his Irish debut with a finely honed quartet featuring pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Uri Caine, both giants of the fertile New York downtown scene, bring their collaboration to the Mermaid on Sunday night. The last time Douglas played Bray, he left with a live recording under his arm, which he subsequently released as Moonshine (2007).

He will also deliver a free workshop on Saturday afternoon. This clashes with the festival’s Contemporary Jazz Showcase matinee, featuring guitarist Hugh Buckley’s hard-swinging band; Dublin-based multinational group Kavorka, hot on the heels of their debut album release; and singer Edel Meade’s Joni Project with guitarist Dick Farrelly.

Bray Jazz Festival is on from tomorrow until Monday, May 5.