Bobo Stenson Trio: Contra la indecisión (ECM 2582)

Contra La Indecisión

Bobo Stenson Trio
Contra la indecisión

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double bass
Jon Fält drums
Recorded May 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

After a six-year hiatus, pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Jon Fält return to the studio with a new direction in tow. The path of said direction carves its way through equally varied territory, but with a philosophical nakedness of association that distinguishes it from previous outings. Compositionally speaking, the focus is on Jormin, who contributes five new tunes. In each of these, especially the Hamlet-inspired “Doubt Thou The Stars” and intimate “Three Shades Of A House,” the broad-ranging palette of not only the composer but also Fält is showcased.

Whether coasting along the edges of consciousness with contemplative themes or shifting into a midtempo groove without looking back, the trio moves as a simpatico vessel, attuned to the subtlest changes of wind and current. Jormin’s confidence is expressed through unforced engagement, which in “Stilla” inspires colorful adlibbing from Stenson. The bandleader’s only original this time around is “Alice,” a haunting piece finding him in dialogue with bowed bass, not a hint of disagreement within earshot.

A smattering of bandmember favorites rounds out the set, including a unified rendition of Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez’s title track, as well as classical melodies drawn from the oeuvres of Béla Bartók (“Wedding Song From Poniky”), Erik Satie (“Elégie”), and Federico Mompou (“Canción y Danza VI”). The latter two are standouts for their respectful introductions and denouements. The freely improvised “Kalimba Impressions” is also noteworthy for its synchronicity and lush, modal development. At once grounded in the source material and straying far from it, it gives testimony to Stenson’s favoring of poetry over prosody.

Although perhaps not quite the masterpiece that 2012’s Indicum was, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t occupy its own territory, beyond the trappings of comparison. As unassuming as an observer whose thoughtful profundity far outweighs the extroversions of its regard, it prefers a quieter approach, masterful in its own way.

(This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Bobo Stenson Trio: Goodbye (ECM 1904)

Goodbye

Bobo Stenson Trio
Goodbye

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded April 2004 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Bobo Stenson’s trio projects have brought a host of eclectic programs to fruition in ECM’s choicest studios. Like label mate Tomasz Stanko, the Swedish pianist’s repertoire is a balancing act of adventure and return. As with the follow-up, Cantando, the present session draws from classical sources (Henry Purcell’s flavorsome “Music For A While”), protest songs (Vladimir Vyotsky’s “Song About Earth,” here something of a meta-statement), standards (Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” and the title tune by Gordon Jenkins), and Latin American music. All of this and more, including new material by Stenson and bassist Anders Jormin, in addition to some tried and true from drummer Paul Motian. Goodbye is the first recorded meeting of these three greats, who comb the pelt of the cosmos until it glistens.

Whether by stick or by brush, Motian’s touch is meticulously impressionistic, reactive, and aware. His slipperiness is recognizable from the first quiver of the Sondheim classic. He adds so much patina to its well-polished surface, locking rough into smooth like the teeth of a zipper. Those unmistakable brushes continue to beguile in “Alfonsina,” which comes from the pen of Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez. We feel more than hear Motian as he blends into Stenson’s exquisite pianism with all the selflessness of a shadow. Only in the fourth track, “There Comes A Time” (Tony Williams), does he change over to sticks. Hooked on Jormin’s arm, he elicits a certain sweetness, fleeting as mist at sunrise. For his own tunes, “Jack Of Clubs” and “Sudan,” he overturns melodic warmth in spades and dips into resolution as might a painter into crimson. These share in the album’s concluding spate of briefer numbers, along with Stenson’s “Queer Street” and Jormin’s “Triple Play”—both tantalizing.

The bassist enlivens the set with three further tracks, shifting from the stark poetry of “Seli” to the more flexible “Allegretto Rubato” at the flick of a wrist. It is “Rowan,” however, that regards the listener most enigmatically. It lives below the water’s surface, gazing at its own reflection until it can no longer swim. Stenson weeps here with the viscosity of a maple tree. Of that tree, the leaf that is Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face” swings freely, making the jive sound so easy when in truth we can hardly comprehend the paths taken to get here.

Regardless of length, every bit of this moody and often-melancholic set feels complete. This is a jazz of evaporation; not the work of a trio but the feeling of another climate.

Bobo Stenson Trio: Cantando (ECM 2023)

Cantando

Bobo Stenson Trio
Cantando

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Jon Fält drums
Recorded December 2007 at Auditorium Radio Svizzera Italiana, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After the epic statement that was Serenity, the Bobo Stenson Trio reshuffled not only its personnel (Jon Fält replaces Jon Christensen, by way of Paul Motian, on drums) but also its sources. Cantando takes these changes in stride, as is clear from the swish and sparkle that unwrap “Olivia.” The opener is by Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, whose left-leaning politics find traction in the haunting backpedaling toward the end, gelling in wordless spirit like a lake in winter. Astor Piazzolla’s “Chiquilín de Bachín” dips again into Latin American material. This is Fält’s moment, as he brings a painter’s awareness of color and nuance to bear on a groovy ride. Yet Jormin is the head and tail of this Ouroborous, adding much with his amplified amethyst sound. Overall, he is an even more defining presence than usual, ever evolving his navigation of Stenson’s winding turns of phrase. As composer, the bassist offers two tunes. “M” is the more swinging of the two, while “Wooden Church” spins a matrix of liturgical and secular impulses, especially in his solo, which scuttles through the walls like a mouse who knows his way blind. Jormin shines further in the loosened fray of Stenson’s night throughout “Pages,” which culls four of seven pieces freely improvised in the studio. Curious and enchanting, they give rare insight into the art at hand.

Cantando rounds out with a handful of tributes. “Don’s Kora Song” gives props to the late Don Cherry, whose far-reaching sense of mood and timing translate well into Stenson’s world. His mechanical yet intuitive precision in the left-hand ostinato reminds us that all music has a heartbeat. The obscure Ornette Coleman tune “A Fixed Goal” betrays its tongue-in-cheek title in a series of moving targets, of which Jormin’s are the blurriest. Nestled snug against a forward-thinking take on the standard “Love, I’ve Found You” is Alban Berg’s “Liebesode.” A sarangi-like intro evokes stretches of dunescape before the piece’s thick description balances the raw and the cooked in delicious proportion. Last is “Song Of Ruth.” Written by the late Czech composer Petr Eben and recorded here just two months after his passing, it follows wherever gravity may lead. It pulses on forested borders, cut from the cloth of the earth by rivers and footpaths. So veracious is it that it might as well be called “Song Of Truth.” The album contains two versions, a variation of which closes the set, most forthcoming in its philosophies and clothed in the iridescence of its will. Brilliant.

One can always count on Stenson to outdo himself, and this time is no different. He consistently pulls the listener in fresh improvisatory directions, all of which blossom as supply as ever in the spacious engineering, courtesy of Stefano Amerio in Lugano. This trio, in every incarnation, is a book unto itself: over time the binding relaxes but remains intact. All of which gives metaphorical strength to “Pages,” smelling still of the glue that holds them together.

(To hear samples of Cantando, click here.)

Bobo Stenson Trio: Indicum (ECM 2233)

Bobo Stenson Trio
Indicum

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Jon Fält drums
Recorded November and December 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The anticipation of a new Bobo Stenson Trio release may be too much to bear, but the release of one is too much to ignore. This seventh album for ECM finds the Trio in new rags and old. Bill Evans’s “Your Story” was a favorite of Paul Motian, to whom the present version is dedicated, and starts the set off on a bittersweet note. It’s a heartfelt solo from Stenson that gives us perspective on the life of an artist whose contributions to the genre were incomparable. It also lulls us into a state of such openness that “Indikon,” the first of three freely improvised tracks, can be the only logical way to proceed. Along with its like-mindedly titled cousins, it reveals the album’s innermost thoughts. The title track even more so, as it threads slow and spiraling footprints along a haunting arco wire. Breathing room narrows to the point of claustrophobia, and slumbers there under a blanket of dead leaves. Here is the trio in its finest cohesions, spontaneous yet blossoming with organic comfort. Stringing one eureka moment after another, none of the musicians ever tries to lead the others, opting instead for close-eyed trust. “Ermutigung,” a protest song by East German dissident and Hanns Eisler protégé Wolf Biermann, levels off a scoop of political history with a smoothness of execution few can match. Fält’s subtleties keep its textures porous and susceptible to whatever comes in Stenson’s flights of abandon. Jormin steps forth in his deepest solo of the set and sweeps us like autumn into the cavernous “Indigo.” Amid rustlings of toms and cymbals, we hear the echo of a faraway song, changed by its journey from source to destination. Jormin pens two tunes. Between the frozen lake sheen of “December” and the creeping rays of “Sol” there is another album’s worth of imagery to ponder. The latter’s beginnings are remarkably enigmatic, every stroke of the horsehair a branch ready to fall. Both embody a depth of solitude that can only be seen in optimistic light. Jormin also offers his co-arrangement with Sinikka Langeland of a traditional Norwegian Ave Maria, which over its nearly eight-minute articulation of church rafters and prayerful thanksgiving recalls his work with Stenson on Matka Joanna. “La Peregrinación” is yet another unassuming vehicle for the bassist. Written in 1964 by late Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez, it sways like a playground swing in the wind of a tumultuous past. The lilting feel, maintained throughout, is all kinds of wonderful and fades into a sparkling finish. “Event VI” is adapted from George Russell’s eight-part suite, Living Time, thus bringing the Bill Evans connection full circle. Fält is as colorful as ever in his attempts to evoke the orchestral flavors of the original. Danish composer Carl Nielsen gets a nod in “Tit er jeg glad,” while another from across the water in Denmark, Ola Gjeilo, gets his in “Ubi Caritas.” Both are brushed and polished to a resonant shine, the second keening in aching curves of finality.


(Session photo by Nadia F. Romanini)

It’s encouraging to know that bands like Stenson’s exist. What the trio lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality and, more importantly, in its ability to morph into a new animal with every title uttered from its lips. In this sense, “Indicum” is more than a vision of what could be. It is the solution to darkness.

(To hear samples of Indicum, click here.)

Bobo Stenson Trio: War Orphans (ECM 1604)

 

Bobo Stenson Trio
War Orphans

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded May 1997 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following a memorable return on 1996’s Reflections, the Bobo Stenson Trio strengthened its resolve with the release of War Orphans. Like the Ornette Coleman tune that gives the album its title, the flow borne out on these proceedings is attentive and sincere. The footfall of the same, tender as if not wanting to wake a sleeping child, lends this and its surroundings a natural feel. Yet it is “Oleo de mujer con sombrero” by Cuban folk singer and nueva trova pioneer Silvio Rodriguez that prefaces. A tender intro from Stenson leads us into the album cover’s barren vista, a place where memories and souls intermingle like characters in a Theo Angelopoulos film. Anders Jormin grows from the piano like a melodic appendage into the waters of his own “Natt.” The first of three tunes by the bassist, its current rolls stones into smooth jewels, while “Eleventh Of January” and “Sediment” bring synergy and whimsy in turn. Captivating solos in both cast him as the hub of this emotional wheel. Coleman resurfaces in “All My Life,” to which drummer Jon Christensen adds his skipping crosscurrents, setting off another star turn from Jormin, whose fingers dance their fretless way into the heart of Stenson’s lone original, “Bengali Blue.” This smooth joint crashes against the rhythm section’s shore before a surprisingly buoyant version of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” woos us into the piano’s final words, receding like a sun dipping its ladle into steaming ocean.

War Orphans has a feeling of clockwork, intimate gears set by key to turn and melodize. It is a salve to our innermost wounds. Like ripples in a pond from three stones, these minds naturally find ways to commingle.

Bobo Stenson Trio: Serenity (ECM 1740/41)

 

Bobo Stenson Trio
Serenity

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.

Bobo Stenson Trio: Reflections (ECM 1516)

 

Bobo Stenson Trio
Reflections

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded May 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While not every cover photo necessarily gives insight into its album, the sleeve of the Bobo Stenson Trio’s Reflections reveals something at the heart of this music: light. The first time I laid eyes upon it, I swore I was looking at a flock of birds in the clouds. Closer inspection revealed, of course, one of the title’s more obvious meanings. If this little guessing game revealed anything to me, it was that what I was about to hear would feel the same: at once sky below and earth above.

And where better to begin than in the leader-penned “The Enlightener,” which paints an aerial view of territories he will soon explore with long-lost brothers Anders Jormin (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums). Stenson keeps his left hand entrenched in a haunting monotone here, giving ample ground for the right’s erratic yet ever-purposeful flights, achieving somewhere along the way a transcendence one hears perhaps only in the Keith Jarrett Trio at its best.

George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” provides our first dip into the pool of standards. Like a bird jumping from branch to branch before finally settling where it will make its nest, Stenson binds drumsticks with bass strings and makes a home. His playing can thus be very dense at times, and to ensure that we don’t get pulled under, Jormin gives us a refreshing change of bass in two compositions. “NOT” opens with a lyrical gesture from Jormin against mere tracings of piano and cymbals before locking into a lumbering groove, which is mixed to bold consistency by a wider pianistic embrace. The agitated reverie of “Q,” however, sports the finest moment in the set in Jormin’s flowering solo.

After the frothy runs of Stenson’s “Dörrmattan,” we are treated to a breathtaking rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D.” Stenson treads almost stealthily here down a path of Tord Gustavsen-like balance, taking the tune to a cosmic level before closing with two more of his own: “12 Tones Old” (another bass vehicle in which notes crawl like spiders content in their webs) and “Mindiatyr.” This last is one of his most impressionistic, beginning in cascades supported by some lovely arco bass, which then hones itself into the buzzing exuberance of a spirit setting out on its first journey. Christensen’s enviable rhythm work plays us out alongside a Byzantine flourish from the keys. 

Listening to Stenson’s navigations is, I imagine, what a magician feels when fooled by another magician—which is to say that just when you think you know all the ins and outs of the craft, someone comes along and brings you back to the youthful joy that first lured you into it. One feels so much in everyone’s playing on Reflections, as if it were already living inside us and needed only six hands to give it voice.

This date is a dream come true. Thank your lucky stars you can hear while awake.

Terje Rypdal: s/t (ECM 1016)

Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal guitar, flute
Inger Lise Rypdal voice
Ekkehard Fintl oboe, English horn
Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
Bobo Stenson electric piano
Tom Halversen electric piano
Arild Andersen electric bass, double-bass
Bjørnar Andresen electric bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded August 12 & 13, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal’s first ECM effort as frontman is a bewitching look into the Norwegian guitarist’s formative years. With a bevy of talented musicians in tow, he forges a mercurial portrait of late-night melodies and hidden desires. “Keep It Like That – Tight” is stifling and seedy, buffeted by cooling fans and laced with the fumes of an alcoholic haze. It’s a desolate hotel room where more than evening falls, a cigarette put out on the skin, incoherent words spilling from warm lips. The atmosphere is acutely palpable, oozing with film noir charisma and slurred speech. Garbarek spins a notable solo here, only to be overtaken all too soon by Rypdal’s drunken swagger. One might think this would be a taste of things to come, but Rypdal surprises with “Rainbow,” a most ethereal track laden with reverb and stratospheric beauty, dominated by oboe for a more classical sound. The background clinks and hums with a variety of percussion, bowed electric bass, and flute. The third track, “Electric Fantasy,” lies somewhere between the first two, a jazz suite with symphonic flavor. Rypdal’s former wife Inger Lise adds some moody vocals as an English horn expands the sound even further. Illusive drumming from Christensen and the occasional wah-wah guitar add dynamic touches of their own. The ambient crawl of “Lontano II” reverses the opening effect by leading into the more blues-oriented “Tough Enough,” leaving a grittier aftertaste.

The striking differences in instrumentation between tracks may be off-putting to some, while others may see it as part of a larger concept. Either way, this self-titled album is thematically rich and more than worth the listen.


Original cover

Stenson/Andersen/Christensen: Underwear (ECM 1012)

Underwear

Underwear

Bobo Stenson piano
Arild Andersen bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded May 18/19, 1971 at the Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With such a solid trio of musicians and a name like Underwear, you just know this one’s going to be good. And sure enough, Stenson kicks things off just right with the spirited title track, throughout which every instrument bubbles in a witches brew of fine flavors. Exuberant drumming, flurried bass lines, and a tightly knit sense of composition make this one of the great openers of ECM’s extensive jazz lineup. Hot on its heels is “Luberon,” the album’s requisite ballad, the placement of which both emphasizes the liveliness of the opener while also bolstering its own lyrical sensibilities. “Test” lays on a more organic sound of percussion and scraped piano strings. This delicate backdrop continues as Stenson breaks into a clearly defined melodic improvisation, prompting cries of ecstatic joy before succumbing to a forced fadeout. “Tant W.” brings us into more laid-back territory with its alluring conversation between piano and drums. Once the bass joins in, the groove becomes certifiably infectious. After this block of Stenson originals, we are treated to a pair of fine closers. Ornette Coleman’s “Untitled” runs with reckless abandon through frenzied pyrotechnics, priming us for the comforting “Rudolf” (Andersen). The latter’s fluid piano intro becomes the heart of the piece, echoing in an otherwise bass-dominant space.

Stenson is entirely on point, as if he were inborn with a finely attuned sense of melody and articulation. His playing is democratic and guides with a gentle hand, always managing to cover so much of the keyboard in a single cut. Andersen’s busy fingers provide the album’s backbone, while his gorgeous vibrato and twang-ridden charm work wonders in the softer moments. And Christensen’s drumming never fails to excite. Triply inspired soloing and a synergistic core make Underwear a prime choice for the ECM newbie and veteran alike. A simply fantastic album, this is one for the ages.