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Maciej Obara: Unloved

Ian Patterson By

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Unloved marks a before and after for alto saxophonist/composer Maciej Obara, whose star has gradually risen since his debut as leader, Message from Ohayo (Polish Radio Katowice, 2007), and his subsequent stint with Tomasz Stanko's New Balladyna Quartet. However, it's arguably with his quintet Obara International, featuring Dominik Wania, Gard Nilssen, Ole Morten Vågan and Tom Arthurs, that Obara has attracted most attention. Championed by Jazztopad festival's international showcase tours, Obara International's extensive travels have been documented in several excellent live recordings. That line-up—minus Arthurs—graces Obara's ECM debut, which captures the familiar intimacy and intuitive spark of a musical rapport half a decade in the brewing.

The music is not quite as melancholy as the title perhaps implies, although a gentle yearning quality infuses ballads such as the standout "Ula," the gently hypnotic title track and the ruminative "Joli Bord." Obara's spare arrangements on these tone poems place the emphasis on emotional currency, the leader's rubato phrasing gently caressing for the most part. Wania's lightness in the piano's upper registers and avoidance of heavy percussive chords allows the subtleties of bass and drums to filter through and reinforces the lyricism in narratives that flow like gentle streams.

There's a little more warmth in "One For," a feature for Wania, whose solo elegantly traverses the compositions skeletal architecture. Gathering pace and fluidity, the pianist engenders a little swing before Obara restores a more plaintive ambiance. The quintet is in feistier form on "Sleepwalker" with Obara leading from the front over gnawing bass ostinatos, staccato piano chords and energized drumming. Nilssen, hitherto all brushes, sotto voce mallets and cymbal caresses as fine as sea spray, moves from deft accompanist to driving engine here and on the meatier "Echoes," responding—bit firmly between the teeth—to Obara and Wania's most expansive and animated soloing of the set.

The prevailing mellow vein that runs through the set is restored on the alto-led intro to "Storyteller." Wania's scurrying and Obara's keening response raise the tension a notch, their searching improvisations underpinned by Vågan's equally inventive lines and Nilssen's rumbling mallets and pressed rolls intensity.

A few more flames of passion might have made for a more balanced and less uniform set, but it's a small quibble with such beautifully rendered music. When Obara does fire up the quartet, comparisons with Chris Potter's small ensembles aren't amiss. In more poetic, introspective mood—as is the case for much of this album—there are shades of Andy Sheppard's less-is-more art. At other times Obara's yearning balladry conjures the restless spirit of Charles Lloyd.

Such evocations, however, are fleeting, for Obara is, above all, an original voice. Nevertheless, Unloved makes the undemonstrative but confident claim that amongst such revered ranks Obara now deserves to be considered.

Track Listing: Ula; One For; Joli Bord; Unloved; Sleepwalker; Echoes; Storyteller.

Personnel: Maciej Obara: alto saxophone; Dominik Wania: piano; Ole Morten Vågan double bass; Gard Nilssen drums.

Title: Unloved | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records

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