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

Named for the Trzy Korony summit of the Pieniny mountain range in the south of Poland, Three Crowns could be described as a peak performance from the Maciej Obara Quartet, and one that builds upon the achievements of their ECM debut, Unloved. Recorded at Studios La Buissonne in March 2019, the album features six new pieces by bandleader Obara and, in an intriguing development, two versions of works by Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010). This is the first occasion on which the Górecki family – whom Maciej came to know while living in Katowice, the composer’s hometown – has encouraged interpretations of the music by improvisers.

To Górecki’s Three Pieces In Old Style (Part One) and Little Requiem for a Polish Girl, composed respectively in 1963 and 1993, Maciej Obara and bandmates Dominik Wania, Ole Morten Vågan and Gard Nilssen bring the intensity and focus that distinguishes their work in the vanguard of contemporary jazz. Theirs is a special quartet with a layered and detailed sound, an alliance of highly individual players dedicated to the group work and able to find space for self-expression inside it.

Maciej Obara, whose concentrated alto sax sound balances lyricism and eruptive emotion, is ideally partnered by Dominik Wania, pianist of formidable technique and classical background: “both are improvisers of mercurial energies”, as The Guardian has noted. Wania who found his own path to jazz after emerging from the Krakow Academy with an honours degree in classical performance, first met Obara inside a Tomasz Stanko ensemble. It was at once clear that the impulsive, outgoing saxophonist and the introverted, analytical pianist shared a profound musical understanding. Their debt to Stanko is expressed in the elegiac “Mr. S” which closes Three Crowns, a free-floating piece atmospherically close to the spirit of Balladyna.

Norwegian musicians Ole Morten Vågan and Gard Nilssen, who joined the two Poles in 2012, have since played together in many other contexts, but it was in the Obara group that they first honed their synergetic rapport. In this ensemble old notions of front line and rhythm section responsibilities are frequently overturned. Gard Nilssen’s unrestrained approach to drums and cymbals takes further the waves-of-sound, waves-of-energy approach of Jon Christensen and Audun Kleive, as his dramatic playing on the title track here makes plain. And Ole Morten Vågan roves freely inside the group sound, as likely to add ideas of his own as to adhere strictly to harmonic and rhythmic roles.

Obara has described the strongly melodic themes he gives to his group as outlines, “from which our sound is set free,” each of the players giving shape, colour and impetus to the music. Ole Morten Vågan’s is the first instrumental voice heard on “Blue Skies for Andy”. Maciej Obara’s heartfelt tribute to his late father, who spent much of his life playing within the Roma community, is a key piece in the new repertoire and an absorbing journey in itself, covering a lot of ground in its nine-and-a-half minutes’ duration, as the band members rally behind the leader’s dynamic alto solo and then expand upon its implications.

Dominik Wania has plenty of powerful moments on Three Crowns, with “Glow”, emerging from the latticework of the pianist’s unaccompanied introduction, especially compelling as it zigzags exhilaratingly through successive plateaus of intensity. The Obara/Wania sound combination is deployed very dramatically here, at times conveying the impression that the musicians are completing each other’s thoughts in the pressurized, speeding world of improvisation.

The Obara Quartet’s star has been steadily on the rise in recent seasons. In May the group took First Prize in the BMW Jazz-Welt Competition in Munich. The Award Jury’s citation spoke of the ”enormous amplitude of emotion, the dynamics and the possibility of expression with which Obara and his quartet were able to fascinate the audience…His lyrical saxophone playing, the strength of his compositions and the unchained power of this outstanding ensemble’s improvisations turned the quartet into this year’s winner.”

Individually, too, the players have been making headway, with Gard Nilssen featured as artist-in-residence at this year’s Molde Festival, Ole Morten Vågan continuing to direct the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (most recently in a collaboration with Cory Smythe), and Dominik Wania preparing material for a forthcoming ECM solo album.

The Maciej Obara Quartet presents the music from Three Crowns on tour this autumn with concerts including the ECM50 festival at Oslo’s Nasjonal Jazz Scene (September 25), Münsterland Festival, Wadersloh, Germany (October 11), Leipzig Jazz Festival (October 12), Enjoy Jazz Festival Mannheim (November 9), NOSPR, Katowice, Poland (November 26), Warsaw (November 27), Koneser, Warsaw (November 27), ZAMEK Culture Centre in Poznań (November 30) and Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (December 20). Further dates, in France and Germany, are scheduled for January 2020.