Martin Myhre OLSEN & Wako & Oslo Strings = Modes for All Eternity – AMP Music, 43:39 (1/20/17) ****½:
Martin Myrhe OLSEN & MMM Ensemble = Lonely Creatures – Øra Fonogram,   48:50, (4/1/16) ***½:

Two bright concept albums featuring small jazz ensembles exploring musical territory of wide visual and literary reference.

I suspect that the students walking through the hallways of the Trondheim Musical Conservatory in Norway are nearly interchangeable with the gifted youngsters at Berklee or the Manhattan Conservatory, for the level of musical culture in Scandinavia is very high indeed. Indeed, these musicians have a  significant advantage in that jazz is more widely appreciated by the mainstream, fostering a visible and widespread self-sustaining musical culture in clubs and public venues. That does not mean that Norwegian musicians have much exposure to audiences such as our readers on this side of the pond. Thus it is a happy sail sighted on the horizon bearing new music from that part of the world.

Under review here are two projects led by Martin Myhre Olsen featuring original compositions played by two different octets, the first named Wako & Oslo Strings and the second MMO. This record takes its title from the five-part suite Modes for All Eternity, the centerpiece of the disc. It is an engaging work of expressive reach and austere beauty. There is a fine integration of the instruments in the elucidation of the several themes and subjects, most of which play out in the somber mode suggested by the weighty title.  Jazz gestures and self-assertion are at a minimum here, but a marvelous feeling of freedom prevails throughout a product of the attuned listening of the players as much as from the score. It would be a privilege to see this piece performed.

The very first track King of Kings, bursts forth with fiery free improvisations against churning strings and a lurching rhythm. The tempest subsides with an emotional retraction as if in preparation for the subsequent pieces, which incline towards subtle reflections on modest melodic themes. Carla has the most conventional shape with fat bass quarter notes swinging a simple jazz notion forward. But even here, the interest lies in the string trio antiphony and the fleet alto solo pushing the tune outward.

Cold Days, Warm Hearts expresses a unsettled melancholy. But the there is some affirmation in the way the group stays together, as always listening to every nuance and allowing for a spacious view of a musical landscape. This is a well-considered musical journey with a group of simpatico musicians who understand the leader’s intentions perfectly. It should be added that the album cover is striking as well, a Brueghelian scene of peasants going about their business as if the world would never end.

The second Martin Olsen outing “Lonely Creatures,” appears on Ora Fonogram, a label we had the great pleasure of encountering on a memorable release by Jovan Pavlovic reviewed on these pages. This recording has many of the same features. Medium sized ensemble playing tight charts with openings for unexpected improvisational divagations. There is only one violin this time and a baritone adds some bottom to the ensemble. Female vocalizing is a prominent ingredient, which like the flavor of cilantro, will not be to everybody’s taste.

Song of the Damned is a promising start. Typically, the piece works its way slowly towards its initial statement. We are greeted by a dawn chorus of whispers and squeaks which gradually rises to a forceful but still ambiguous declamation. Voices arrives with some atavistic chortles and squawks from Kari Eskild Havenstrom, evoking first human speech. Lonely Creatures blends reeds, violin and piano into a comical bear-walk, suggesting the sound world (but not quite the narrative persuasion) of fellow Norwegian composer Eyolf Dale. Farewell and Watch Out Across the Ocean are substantial charts. On the former, a Mingus-like ensemble exhibits a more extroverted attitude. The latter showcases the lithe alto stylings of the leader on chart floating on all manner of rhythmic complexities. A tart violin solo and the omnipresent voice are as insistent as the wind, but in the end ensemble conversations keep the soloists reined in.

Comment is a lyrical statement on alto with striking piano backing which segues into Lonely Creatures Don’t Look Back, which worries the waters with a longish voice/sax unison and then descends into an unpleasant quarrel before a grouchy baritone saxophone asserts a kind of authority. A puzzling piece that doesn’t hold up very well. Kingdom on Creature Island features crisp guitar and the by-now-cloying voice while Duo ends the recorded with a short and splendid statement on alto and piano that immediately raises the question of how much was gained by the overstuffed ensemble. This composer and ensemble leader has done a commendable job putting together this original concept, but in the end it seems like paring down is in order. Overall, it seems like there is a very pure compositional aesthetic which is immediately burdened by a cumbersome ensemble.

Again the Norwegians show us new possibilities within an open concept of the jazz tradition. The very fine WAKO & Oslo Strings can be purchased directly from the AMP Music site.


King of Kings
Sappho’s Theme
Modes for all of Eternity
Song for the Annettes Cold Days, Warm Hearts

Lonely Creatures: 
Song of the Damned
Lonely Creatures
Watch Out Across the Ocean
Lonely Creatures Don’t Look Back
The Kingdom on Creature Island

—Fritz Balwit