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Wako & Oslo Strings

Modes for All Eternity


by Ian Mann

August 25, 2017


The way in which the trio of string players is integrated into the overall ensemble sound is genuinely impressive and the resultant music sounds very natural and organic.

Wako & Oslo Strings

“Modes for All Eternity”

AMP Music & Records AT014)

This album was forwarded to me by the Norwegian pianist Kjetil Andre Mulelid who first came to my attention in 2013 as part of the Nordic trio Lauv ( the group name is the Norwegian for “Leaf”) who released the highly promising EP “De Som Er Eldre Enn Voksne” in that year, the title translating as “Those Who Are Older Than Adults”.  My review of the EP can be read here.

The following year I enjoyed seeing Mulelid perform live at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he was one of the star soloists at the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange event which sees students from the Jazz courses at the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires combining to make music together and presenting the results to the jazz going public.

Mulelid, born in 1991, is now a full time professional musician, and like many of his British contemporaries he is involved in a number of simultaneous projects. Lauv is no more but Mulelid leads his own piano trio, forms half of the duo Kjemilie with vocalist Emilie Vasseljen Storaas and is part of the group Fieldfare, a song based, more pop orientated outfit featuring vocalist Siril Maldemal Hauge, drummer Andreas Winther and former Lauv bassist  Bardur Reinert Poulsen.

Mulelid and Poulsen are also members of the instrumental quartet Wako, a group that also includes alto saxophonist Martin Myhre Olsen (who appeared at the Trondheim Jazz Exchange event in 2012) and drummer Simon Olderskog Albertsen. Their début album, 2015’s “The Good Story” was very well received by the Norwegian jazz media.

Wako appears to be primarily Olsen’s project. The saxophonist has written all the compositions and arrangements for the group’s second album “Modes for All Eternity”, which is an ambitious collaboration between the Wako quartet and three members of Oslo Strings, violinist Kaja Constance Rogers,  violist Isa Caroline Holmesland and cellist Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen.

Olsen has stated that he has striven to make the new seven ensemble group a fully integrated entity that is able to accommodate all of the individual instrumental voices. He has sought to make the string players fully active members of the group, not mere accompanists employed to provide additional texture or decoration. Olsen has cited the influence of composers such as Messiaen and Stravinsky upon his writing as well as chamber jazz projects such as the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble and the Alpaca Ensemble.

From the opening piece “King of Kings” it’s immediately apparent just how successful Olsen has been at integrating the Oslo Strings into the Wako group sound while at the same time creating something fresh and exciting. Like many of their British counterparts the young musicians of the Oslo Strings are far more comfortable with the concept of improvisation than the starchy, strictly classical string players of old. I’m reminded of similarly successful British projects such as Basquiat Strings, Phil Robson’s Six Strings & The Beat and the Andrew McCormack/ Jason Yarde Duo with the Elysian String Quartet.

In the main “King of Kings” is a rousing opener that revels in a variety of timbres and dynamics. The strings are involved from the beginning as they interact with Mulelid’s low end piano rumblings and the clatter of Albertsen’s percussion. A gentler passage then sees the strings cushioning Olsen’s feathery saxophone but the music quickly moves on to embrace some more full blooded ensemble playing from the Wako quartet with Olsen now in a far more garrulous mood. Piano, bass and drums effect harsh, staccato rhythms but the strings are eventually drawn into this robust soundworld before a gentler, more lyrical finale. It’s a breathless introduction to the ensemble and something of a musical roller coaster ride.

“Sappho’s Theme” is more concise and more obviously a jazz/classical crossover. The opening section is courtly, a kind of chamber jazz incorporating a folk like melody and featuring oboe like saxophone, chamber style strings and the tinkling of a glockenspiel. The introduction of kit drums and piano, with some judicious use of dampened strings and other ‘under the lid’ effects, toughens up the sound a little but overall the music remains disciplined and tightly constrained.

Whether “Carla” is actually inspired by Ms. Bley is not made clear but there’s an admirable quirkiness about the piece that suggests that it might have been.  The woozy melodies and odd meter, tango-esque rhythms frame solos from the Faroese Poulsen on double bass plus Olsen on alto saxophone. Again the strings are a vital part of the fabric of the piece, finding a niche for themselves within the conventional jazz instrumentation.

At the heart of the album is the near twenty minute suite “Modes for All Eternity” which is broken down into five constituent parts.

The first movement, “Eternal” begins with the sound of unaccompanied saxophone before continuing the ensemble’s experiments with unconventional rhythms. This in turn quickly gives way to a more freely ordered section featuring the improvisatory interplay of the Wako quartet. As this gradually acquires more structure the additional instrumental voices of the strings find a way to integrate themselves.

The second movement “I Died For Beauty” is a brief (two minutes) but haunting lament paced by Mulelid’s sombre piano and featuring the keening sound of Olsen’s sax allied to rich, melancholic string textures and what sounds like a wordless human voice – although no singers are credited.

Movement three, “Africanus” begins with the sound of unaccompanied cello, around which Olsen’s sax gently intertwines, before the addition of the other Wako group members establishes a lilting groove with Mulelid’s piano at the fore. The other instruments, including pizzicato strings, congregate around this to create a fascinating mesh of interlocking rhythms and textures. Like much of the music on this album this piece is consistently unfolding and in a state of constant flux. It’s sometimes unsettling but it certainly helps to keep listeners on their toes. As the music progresses Poulsen enjoys another brief cameo on the bass and there’s a more extended feature for Olsen on saxophone. 

“Intervallic Nightmares” boasts a proper muso’s title and is a brief episode that sounds much as its name might suggests. Darting, staccato string passages are underscored by the clatter of Albertsen’s percussion. The drummer is a vital presence throughout the album, his inventive and provocative playing imparting a vital edge and energy to the music, helping to ensure that this particular jazz/classical collaboration doesn’t become too bland or overly polite.

Guest trumpeter Erik Kimestad Pedersen graces the final movement, duetting with Olsen on the intro and later soloing with great bravura and fluency above a typically clattery and off kilter rhythmic backdrop. He then links up with Olsen again in a series of vigorous exchanges that are reminiscent of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry as the strings maintain a conspicuously low profile.

“Song for All The Annettes” is generally more lyrical and melodic with the strings now fully back on board. Airy alto sax combines with strings and piano. Mulelid’s piano solo mid tune adds some necessary gristle.

The album concludes with the melodic and atmospheric “Cold Days, Warm Hearts”. The piece features lush string and woodwind textures plus the delightful small details of Albertsen’s percussion. Mulelid’s piano is deployed sparingly but effectively. Perhaps the most descriptive piece of the entire album the music is a perfect encapsulation of the words of the title.

“Modes for All Eternity” is an ambitious album that works well overall. The way in which the trio of string players is integrated into the overall ensemble sound is genuinely impressive and the resultant music sounds very natural and organic. There are a lot of ideas here and occasionally the music sounds a little over complicated and one senses that in attempting to impress that Olsen, as a writer, is maybe trying just a little bit too hard.

Nevertheless it’s a fascinating and well crafted album on which all the musicians play well with Albertsen a particularly distinctive instrumental voice. This is a genuine jazz/classical synthesis although fans of straight ahead jazz may be put off by the lack of conventional swing.  Nevertheless there’s much of interest for more adventurous listeners to enjoy. This is a record whose appeal grows with repeated listening, always a good sign.

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