Frozen Silence is the third ECM release from alto saxophonist Maciej Obara’s Polish-Norwegian quartet, bringing the story forward from Unloved and Three Crowns, recordings which confirmed the ensemble’s standing as one of the most strikingly original European bands of the present moment. The quartet’s creative sense of musical interplay is again to the forefront of this newest album, recorded in Oslo in the summer of 2022, which may be their strongest statement to date. Obara’s new music optimally highlights his intuitive musical relationship with Dominik Wania, while Ole Morten Vågan and Gard Nilssen continually transcend rhythm section roles to interact persuasively with the saxophonist and the pianist.
Alert interactivity is the hallmark of the group’s approach. The new repertoire, however, was shaped by Maciej in isolation. When pandemic lockdowns shut the door on the Polish jazz scene and ruled out international touring, he left Warsaw and headed for the hills and forests. The compositions heard here are reveries of the solitary walker: direct responses to nature, in particular the starkly dramatic landscapes of the Karkonosze region in south-west Poland, where his family roots are. Song titles single out some special locations – “Black Cauldron” (in Polish, Czarny kocioł jagniątkowski), “High Stone” (Wysoki kamień), and “Dry Mountain” (Sucha Góra).
The craggy outline of the balladic “High Stone” suggests both an ascent and a view of the territory. If the constantly changing winter light and the “frozen silence” of snow-capped peaks provided one set of inspirations there were also subtle musical influences at work. “At the time, I had been listening a lot to the music of Bill Dixon, my favourite trumpet player, which seemed to fit the emptiness and silence of the mountains. And I think you can hear the impact of Dixon on pieces like ‘Black Cauldron’ or ‘Flying Pixies’.” The latter title, he says, refers to the flickering reflections of sunlight on hardened snow.
Two titles fall outside the conceptual framework of high atmospheres. “Waves of Glyma” shifts the geographical focus from the mountains of Poland to the beaches of south Crete with vivid memories of blue waters against red sandstone cliffs.
“Rainbow Leaves”, meanwhile, co-credited to Obara and Nikola Kołodziejczyk, was written originally to augment Maciej’s Concerto for saxophone, piano and chamber orchestra, a major work which had been premiered by the AUKSO Orchestra in Poland. Kołodziejczyk had contributed the string arrangement to the orchestral version. The quartet version characteristically steers the music to new places, following the lead of Maciej’s saxophone, by turns reflective and impassioned.
The core line-up of the two Polish musicians, Maciej Obara and Dominik Wania, and the two Norwegian players, Ole Morten Vågan and Gard Nilssen, has been together for 11 years now. Four strong individual musicians, all bandleaders and project leaders in their own right, their contrasting but complementary styles defining the group’s character.
Dominik Wania, prominently featured throughout Frozen Silence, is increasingly recognized as one of the outstanding improvisers of his generation. Obara says, “We’ve been great friends from the very beginning but now I can feel that his work on his solo album [2020’s Lonely Shadows] also helped us to develop the music and his contribution to this band, opening even more the classical approach in his soloing with the quartet. I’m not talking about a single style, but about the way in which he really cares about dynamics in every moment and focuses on the tiny details that make music better. “
Drummer Gard Nilssen’s profile has also been raised with the release, last year, of Elastic Wave, his first ECM leader date. “Gard’s touch on the drums, the sounds he draws from them, and his flowing feeling for time is fantastic, and the combination with Ole Morten in the quartet is very special. Ole Morten’s so experienced through his years of directing the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. And his way of bringing together a lyrical feeling for melody with classical awareness of form and the simultaneous commitment to free playing – well that’s a rare combination.” Frozen Silence was recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in June 2022, and mixed and completed in Munich, in April 2023, by Manfred Eicher.
The Obara Quartet launches Frozen Silence with appearances at festivals in Poland in July, including Warsaw Summer Jazz Festival (July 9), Krakow Summer Jazz Festival (July 23), and International Jazz Platform, Łódz (July 24). Further European dates are in preparation.