Bobo Stenson TrioWar OrphansECM 1604 CD 539 723-2
The recently-released anthology Selected Signs featured more contributions from Bobo Stenson than from any other ECM musician, a small indication of the Swedish pianist's sudden ubiquity. In the last year Stenson has criss-crossed Europe with several, quite different, bands. At the major jazz festivals, for example, with Tomasz Stanko's Septet/Sextet, he has been playing music from Litania, featuring arrangements of Krzysztof Komeda's compositions for film and for jazz ensemble; it's a challenging project for a pianist inevitably cast in the Komeda role and addressing it entirely on his own terms (the London Times praised Stenson's "mellifluous elegance" in this context). With Stanko's Quartet, meanwhile, (as on Leosia) the emphasis is often on abstract improvisation, the pianist's lines darting between the slashing, angular drum patterns of Tony Oxley. The Charles Lloyd Quartet - currently billed as "featuring Bobo Stenson" - has been a regular gig for a decade now, its newest recording Canto taking its blend of modal lyricism and rhythmic drive to the next level, in the words of England's Gramophone, "a masterpiece". Stenson's own trio, with Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen, has also been touring extensively in the slipstream of the impact made by Reflections, his 1996 ECM release which collected several prizes, including a Swedish "Grammy" and the Golden Record award of Sweden's Orkester Journalen (the first occasion on which any musician had won both awards). A player who has always given more attention to the shape of a melody than to the condition of his outward career, Bobo Stenson now finds his work in considerable demand.
Reflections brought Stenson back to piano trio playing after a longer break. Although he had briefly led a trio - with Rune Carlsson, Komeda's old drummer, oddly enough - in the mid-1980s, Reflections was his first piano-bass-drums date for ECM since Underwear had been taped back in 1971. The first wave of trio activity had been curtailed when Stenson's association with Jan Garbarek, initially documented on the Sart session, led to the formation in 1973 of the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet. Bobo notes that the repertoire of his current trio is in some particulars picking up threads left hanging from the early days.
Take "Oleo de mujer con sombrero" (Oil Portrait of a Lady in a Hat), the pretty ballad written by Cuban poet/songwriter/guitarist Silvio Rodríguez, which opens War Orphans. "In the early 70s I was quite interested in Cuban music - I'd already found 'Haste Siempre', the Carlos Puebla song that eventually appeared on Witchi-Tai-To, and an album put out by the Swedish Caprice label drew my attention to Silvio Rodríguez and that song in particular. Years later, and without knowing I was interested in it, Anders [Jormin], who's been in Cuba several times - and who knows a lot about the music - did a very beautiful solo bass recording of it and when I heard that I knew it was time to look at the piece again".
Stenson's acquaintanceship with the two Ornette Coleman songs heard here - the title track and "All My Life" - also dates from the beginning of the 1970s. "I always loved Ornette's melodies, right from the very start, and followed his work. And of course getting to know Don Cherry [the pianist and the trumpeter were associated from the time of the trumpeter's arrival in Sweden up until his final recording session on Dona Nostra] got me deeper into the songs." Bobo first heard "All My Life" in the ravishing version sung by Asha Puthli on Science Fiction, and his own take on the tune retains a very 'vocal' quality, lyricism to the fore.
"War Orphans" itself is an older piece, composed by Ornette during his two-year retirement from performance in 1963/64 and first brought to light by Charlie Haden for his Liberation Music Orchestra recordings at the end of that decade. Paul Motian recorded the tune for ECM in 1974 (in a version which, curiously, anticipated the two-guitar approach of Coleman's Prime Time) but Bobo's interpretation, with the crying, hornlike phrasing in the right hand, perhaps best conveys the profound sense of sadness in this elegy, underlined by very soulful arco playing from Jormin and the fitful flaring of Christensen's drums.
Three of the pieces on War Orphans are from the pen of Anders Jormin. "Eleventh of January" is described by Stenson as a tune written expressly for piano, "a simple two-line piece which covers some harmonies." As was the case with "Not" on Reflections, "Sediment" gives oblique notice of another of Jormin's enthusiasms, Swedish folk music, although the free approach that the trio takes to the composition does not make folkloristic references immediately obvious. On "Natt" (Swedish for "night"), Jormin's dark-toned bass has the opening solo statement.
Stenson has helped to ensure that Jormin's playing and writing has had a hearing over the last decade: the pianist brought him, for example, into the bands of Lloyd and Stanko, ensuring wider exposure. "I first heard Anders in the early 80s and I heard immediately that this guy had something special to say. I liked his beat. It was very individual and reminded me of that Indian instrument, the sarod. That kind of dry beat on the string. He's got that, unconsciously." This quality comes through on Stenson's "Bengali Blue" which, as its composer notes, "has a little Indian flavour."
The Stenson/Christensen association was initiated in 1969 when the pianist and drummer came together for a recording session under the aegis of Swedish trumpeter Jan Allan and since then they have been very frequent partners. "It's impossible to be the 'leader' of a group with Christensen in it," Stenson says, affectionately. "If anybody's the boss in a playing situation it's probably him, because you never know what he's going to get up to. He's definitely the most unpredictable element, but we can all go our different ways."
Christensen's waywardness is particularly evident on the closing track, Duke Ellington's "Melancholy". Stenson used to play this as a pensive solo piece. The trio's account of it may be the freest treatment the standard has received, as Jormin and Stenson chase Christensen's speeding drums and cymbals for most of the song's length. By Jon Christensen's reckoning (we confess that we've lost count) War Orphans is his 50th ECM session - reason enough to celebrate and cast propriety to the winds at its conclusion...
The Bobo Stenson Trio begins 1998 with concerts in Holland and France. An extensive European tour is planned for later in the year.