WAKO  ( Mulelid/Olsen/ Poulsen/Albertsen):  Urolige Sinn – Ora Fonogram – (8/25/18) ****½:

(Kjetil Andre Mulelid; piano, Martin Myre Olsen; saxophones, Bardur Reinert Poulsen; bass, Simon Olderskog Albertsen, drums and percussion)

It is worth recalling the advice from the Stoic philosophers that there are no troubles in the world except those contained within our heads. Outside of that peculiar container, the elements and particles move according to the serene and indifferent laws of physics.  Yet it is the human fate to move through the world with “Troubles in Mind,” which, as it turns out, is the translation of the title (Urolige Sinn) of this latest offering from the Norwegian Label Ora Fonogram.  The striking photograph on the cover shows a man skiing through an icy landscape. He is a shadow against glazed surface and unbounded horizon. His posture suggests resolution; if his troubles bear him down, his resources and ingenuity push him forward. The photo is from 1909 and aptly suited for a meditation on the Inside/ Outside dichotomies of both a musical and existential nature presented by this recording.

The group WAKO is composed of four young Norwegians who have recently taken their avant-garde concept on the road, playing to much acclaim before European audiences of the “willing-ears” sort. The ensemble is conventional: alto sax, piano, bass and drums. The approach, though, is refreshingly new. Taking up our landscape metaphor again, it is as if they have abandoned all unnecessary things for lightness of travel. What they need, they will find. So there are no carefully composed tunes over which solos rage. Nor are there any recycled jazz cliches (and it is precisely in much avant-garde jazz that certain conventions such as Coltrane-isms or Monk-isms are relied on). On 13 short tunes, the group is alert to changing and unstable terrain, and mostly they land on their feet.

There are two modes/methods which seem to prevail. One builds from the rhythm up. The drummer has a dazzling array of rattling and clattering on his kit. Strangely, he doesn’t like fortissimo banging but rather a kind of frenetic subdividing and scrutinizing of a musical idea. The bass broods and thrums along with this torrent of percussion to make a stage for the piano and/ or sax to melodic or figural presentations. No one aspires to narrative, yet there is flow and coherence on even the freest  pieces. Two early tracks demonstrate this technique brilliantly. Skumring og det som horer til and Den endlosen planen have no conventional role for the piano and sax, but this doesn’t bother the ensemble in the least; the sax adopts a percussive attitude while the piano plays brief out of sync figures in a floating revery detached from the burbling energies around it. These tracks  are vigorous, inventive moments of supreme concentration. Their brevity might be strategic as this kind of unstructured playing can, if taken with too much self-seriousness, send the listener into the kitchen to look for culinary diversions.

Portrait of Wako

Photo © Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard

The other method builds around a theme with modest forward harmonic movement. However, even this framework seems unstable and can quickly dissolve into planned chaos. Skavelet fore is a stupendous piece of playing on more conventional jazz material. There is a hard driving swing from both drums and bass, which suggests a powerful tune a-coming. Rather, one gets a keening wail and fluttering of keys in the best incendiary tradition of John Zorn. Yet remarkably, the tune lurches forward, escorting the frenzied reed player in a satisfying but completed utterance. By the end, one feels that sure that this saxophonist is a major discovery in the works. His playing is self-assured and boldly declarative. It bears comparison to bold flight in icy conditions. Perhaps our solitary skier will look up and see the arctic loving Gyrfalcon bracing for a stoop against sharp winds. A poignant sketch,  Du grater aldri, on which Mulelid’s piano approaches ECM territory, is haunting. The following tune, Elisabeths vise, works on a binary structure with more predictable comings and goings. They are plausible assays without the sense of daring or excitement of the best works on this disc.

Perhaps, though, in the end, it is the pianist Kjetil Andre Mulelid who most inhabits the portable troubles of the ski-shod sojourner. His finest moments are brooding, introverted passages which seem like they will build to a lyrical statement but which are in the end constrained by modesty or pessimism. Perhaps it is just good tema playing or Scandinavian manners. Regardless, he never dominates the conversation with a declarative chord, preferring oblique commentary and upward inflected suggestions. There are other times when he demonstrates technical resources that could have only been gained by working through Gyorgi Ligeti or some such modern classical composer. The three tracks credited this pianist, and especially the last Langt, langt der nede, show a deft compositional skill. Even here he stops short of rhapsodizing, allowing the drums to suggest a remote sort of glacial beauty.

In the end, the strength of the record lies in the perfect realization of an entirely open-ended high-rick sort of improvised group playing. It is difficult for the album to maintain the impossible standards of the tracks two, three, and four, and one waits for moments of clarity and bursts of downhill velocity. But nothing is dull, nor is there pretense or freakishness. The sound is yet another achievement. Perhaps the engineer was most generous to the drum kit, but there is a nice separation and consistent balance to the sound image overall. It is a very short set but good enough to play a second time straight through.

A link from their own site, WAKO, shows this fine group in action on a concert take of The Lizard, the Snake and the Panther, or Skavlet Føre, from their recording session.  If proof is needed, it demonstrates the remarkable signature sound of Martin Myhre Olsen, whose playing in this instance is much more mainstream—and very beautiful.

All in all, another success from an adventurous label that should have wider representation on this side of the Atlantic. Let’s hope their sojourns take them in this direction soon.

—Fritz Balwit

Portrait, Wako Norwegian Jazz

Photo © Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard