Bobo Stenson Trio
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded April 1999, HageGården Music Center, Brunskog, Sweden
Engineer: Åke Linton
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Serenity is the Bobo Stenson Trio’s night and day. With bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Christensen, pianist Stenson has not only carved a niche for himself but has also redefined the tools with which he carves. With this date the Trio takes itself to yet another level, fashioning anew the very material to which those tools are laid. Something in the opening harmonics of “T.” tells us so. Blossoming against percussive footfalls, Jormin dances a tango of shadow and light into cool slumber, the dreams of which are mapped by the cardinal points of the next four tracks (“West Print,” “North Print,” “East Print,” “South Print”), each a magnetic improvisation which draws its directionality not only from the earth but also from the gravity of our emotions. The surest of these attractions brings us into the exigencies of the “Polska of Despair (II).” This chromatic twist never winds into the legs it needs to stand but only dissolves even as it hoists itself up on crumbling melodic crutches. In “Golden Rain” Jormin’s bass emotes as if a tree might sing, dropping fruit to the tune of Christensen’s cymbals as Stenson’s keys take in their surroundings like chlorophyll to sunlight. The nod to Wayne Shorter (“Swee Pea”) that follows sounds more like the rain that precedes it in title, falling as it does with the rhythm of a weeping cloud. And by the time Jormin redraws those paths with a recognizable surety, we accept it not as a resolution but as an amendment to its scattered beginnings in the piano’s fertile soil. “Simple & Sweet” begins with a protracted intro from Jormin, which after two and a half minutes of brilliance guides Stenson into view against an organic flow from Christensen. This is followed by Hanns Eisler’s “Die Pflaumenbaum,” one of the most reflective turns in the album’s passage. Christensen is brilliant on cymbals along the way, with nary a drum in earshot. “El Mayor” (Silvio Rodriguez) smoothes us out into the comforts of another rainy afternoon, threading itself through every droplet with a grace of a prayer and the immediacy of its answering. Jormin stands out yet again, playing almost pianistically, while Stenson proves that in the sometimes mountainous terrain of the ballad he is our most reliable Sherpa. The haunting group improvisation “Fader V (Father World)” is deep to the last drop, beginning inside the piano (as if in the heart) and drawing from it an array of ribbons around the maypole of memory. Yet the pace is contemplative, filled with bittersweet joy. Jormin’s bass rings true like the voice of the past, at once domineering and loving. “More Cymbals” might as well be Christensen’s middle name, though its results forefront only whispering rolls along with Jormin’s pained arco trails. “Die Nachtigall” (Hanns Eisler) is another foray into smoother territories. It brushes its way through space and time like a street sweeper in the mind, quarantining all the refuse of a varicolored life into the sewers—only we follow it through those corroded pipes, past families of rats and dim reflections and out into the ocean where they are reborn along the waves. The rubato smattering of sticks and strings that is “Rimbaud Gedicht” brings us at last to the most awesome track on the record: “Polska of Despair (I)” embodies the perfect combination of propulsive drumming, buoyant bass work (Jormin even pays brief homage to Andersen’s “305 W 18 St” in his solo), and soaring pianism that every trio aspires to. Finally, “Tonus” is classic Stenson. Around a bass line for the ages he weaves vivacious improvisational lines into a braid from which we may wish never to detangle ourselves.
The topography of Serenity is as varied as that of life, speaking to and from the heart of what this outfit is capable of. This record is first and foremost about clarity, second about a distant storm whose image is its soundtrack. In balancing these two forces—circumstance and memory—Stenson and company forge a shining star whose light illuminates everything that we are. It’s easy to let the spell of its lyricism wash over you like a song, but we are reminded that the Trio speaks as much as it sings, bringing life to a vocabulary that can only be uttered at the keyboard, fingerboard, and drum, each traipsing at the edge where words fail.
4 thoughts on “Bobo Stenson Trio: Serenity (ECM 1740/41)”
I keep waiting for sufficient time to properly thank you for this review — but it never arrives. I like your night and day analysis. And your trip around the compass points analysis. You are right, Polska of Despair (I) is the triumph of the record, taken in sequence, and your description of PoD(II) as never quite finding its shaky legs is on target. But PoD(I) informs (II) if you listen in reverse order, and brings much more structure and melody to what at first appears to be an utterly abstract piece. So we have forwards and backwards, structured and unstructured. (I think we also have old and new; do you also hear echoes of Carla Bley’s All India Radio in Lorens Brolin’s PoD?)
Ives’ Serenity sits at the still point of all these whirling extremes, and drops us on Stenson’s own Tonus, whose final phrase hangs in the air like a final “?” What is it asking? I don’t know, but it’s kept me listening for these many years since its release. This is a deep record, I know of no other piano trio recording of such artistic merit.
Anyway, thanks much for your review, and for all your work.
And thank you, Will, for your insights. I listened to this album for the first time when I reviewed it, and so I look forward to taking the PoDs, as you suggest, in sequence and learning more about the structural intricacies of the first in light of the second. Whatever this album is asking, I almost hope I never know the answer. That way, it will always hold me.
I believe Swee Pea refers to Billy Strayhorn. This was Ellington’s and his bandmates’ endearing nickname for him. I never heard Shorter being referred to as Swee Pea.
Delete the comment above. I just realized Shorter was the composer not the subject. Per Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella – “Never Mind”