In a career now approaching half a century, Manfred Eicher’s greatest strength has been his ability to recognize talent. Maciej Obara is an alto saxophonist from Poland. His debut on Eicher’s ECM label reveals a special player with a sensitive touch and a poetic concept. Dominik Wania is another promising Eicher discovery. He may be the best pianist to come out of Poland since Marcin Wasilewski. Obara’s quartet also includes two emerging Norwegians, bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen.
Eicher’s second most important strength is less widely recognized. As a producer, he works with his artists to shape albums into organic wholes. Unloved is one aesthetic atmosphere. Obara’s saxophone wafts through it like yearning become breath become sound. On each of his six originals, he touches in a momentary melodic pattern, then veers into open space where he encounters Wania, who pursues his own chiming agenda, inventing songs within the song. Obara describes his pieces as “outlines.” They are fluid provisional forms. His soft calls and Wania’s strands of light commingle. Meanwhile, Vågan broods beneath them and Nilssen’s brushes are intermittent flickers of energy.
Two pieces that could have broken the spell are the title track, the only one not composed by Obara, and “Echoes,” the only burner. “Unloved” is from a film score by Kryzsztof Komeda, and is a more fully developed compositional idea than anything else here. Like all Komeda melodies, it seems simple and innocent until it becomes hypnotic. Obara’s ensemble renders it in saxophone whispers, piano glistenings, mysterious bass signals and cymbal flashes. “Unloved” deepens the album’s overall mystery. “Echoes” shows that Obara’s measured creative process is capable of breaking into passion, but it is followed by “Storyteller,” the final track, which returns this music to where it began, in cumulative episodes of haunting transitory lyricism.