Wako & Oslo Strings: Modes for All Eternity
AMP Music & Records

That ampersand in the artist credit says much about the character of this terrific recording. Yes, all of the music was written by Wako's leader, Norwegian saxophonist Martin Myhre Olsen, but the album plays like a fully integrated set by seven musicians as opposed to a jazz quartet accompanied by three guests (four, if you include trumpeter Erik Kimestad Pedersen, who appears on one of the ten tracks). Speaking of which, Olsen himself recently guested on pianist Arne Torvik's Northwestern Sounds, a high-quality collection of contemporary Norwegian jazz we had the pleasure of reviewing earlier this year. On this date, however, he's joined by regular quartet members pianist Kjetil André Mulelid, bassist Bárður Reinert Poulsen, and drummer Simon Olderskog Albertsen, as well as Oslo Strings violinist Kaja Constance Rogers, violist Isa Caroline Holmesland, and cellist Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen.

Though the album generally features seven musicians, the ensemble nevertheless achieves the symphonic resonance of a large-scale jazz orchestra. Some settings are fully notated, whereas others are formal compositions that allow space for solo improvisation. Olsen's an excellent player, arranger, and composer, with the ten pieces showing him to be a writer of some distinction, and an impressive degree of versatility is displayed in both the compositions and the performances. With solos ranging from the melodically direct to the boldly abstract, the saxophonist typically leads the charge, but others are also prominently featured. Though “King of Kings” positions a soloing Olsen on alto at the forefront, Mulelid, Poulsen, and Albertsen are with him every step of the way as they augment his free-wheeling expressions with rambunction of their own.

“Sappho's Theme,” which benefits markedly from Olsen's luscious arrangement, segues from a lyrical ensemble intro to a freer sequence that grants Mulelid an elegant moment in the spotlight; here and elsewhere, the pianist amplifies the material with intelligence and taste. If “Carla” isn't intended as a Carla Bley tribute, it could certainly pass for one when the tune exudes the kind of enticing melodic flavour the composer-conductor herself specializes in. In following the sober “Sappho's Theme,” the relaxed, R&B-tinged swing of “Carla” nicely captures the project's sunnier side, as does the singing sax solo the leader contributes to the piece. The later “Song for All the Annettes” features some of the album's most lyrical and melodious moments, while also offering a prime illustration of how effectively the groups blend.

The five-part title suite encompasses broad ground in terms of style and mood. After opening with the aggressive “Eternal,” the group shifts its attention to the funereal dirge “I died for beauty,” its title taken from an Emily Dickinson poem. An album highlight, the melodically infectious “Africanus” makes a strong argument for the leader's writing and arranging talents when a singing sax riff, plummeting figure, and string plucks collectively form the album's most potent earworm, and when Pedersen joins Olsen at the front-line for “Rejoice,” the former's declamatory trumpet brings forth some of the leader's freest playing.

Olsen and company are to be commended for producing such a fully realized recording. Modes for All Eternity is ultimately distinguished as much for the playing of the combined groups as the ease with which it integrates the kind of formality associated with classical writing and the freedom of improvised jazz.

July 2017