‘The steepest learning curve ever’: Geoffrey Paterson on working with jazz virtuoso Marius Neset

With its cross- and poly-rhythmic improvisations, Neset’s mind-bending music came as a shock to the classical conductor and his musicians – but also an intoxicating joy

Back in 2015, the London Sinfonietta approached me about a project rather different from the Stockhausen and Birtwistle I had conducted with them previously. The group were recording a new album with the up-and-coming Norwegian jazz saxophonist Marius Neset. An enthusiastic (if far from expert) listener to jazz, I leapt at the chance to be involved.

Years earlier I had got to know and love Mark-Anthony Turnage’s jazz-infused masterpiece Blood on the Floor as well as his wonderful bluesy saxophone concerto Your Rockaby, so I had a notion of what the meeting of contemporary-classical and jazz could spark when approached from the angle of the former. But I had little idea what to expect from the reverse, and Marius’s score was a shock and a thrill. Hundreds of pages of elaborately scored, virtuoso writing for every member of the 19-strong Sinfonietta ensemble in a context of what seemed to be relentless metrical complexity in some extremely fast tempi. Only the telltale empty staves for Marius’s quartet of saxophone, piano, drums and bass hinted at the extra layer of improvised activity that we would need to integrate with the notated music.

Prom 63: Marius Neset and the London Sinfonietta play the Royal Albert Hall, London, at 10.15pm on 3 September

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