Slowly, surely, inexorably, the Bobo Stenson trio has developed into one of the most exceptional pi-ano trios of our time. The widely-praised 1997 recording "War Orphans" marked a major advance on the 1993 "Reflections" which, nonetheless, was a prize-winning album in its own right (collecting both a Swedish Grammy and the Golden Record award of Sweden's Orkester Journalen). These al-bums found Stenson reassessing the approach and indeed repertoire of his early 70s trio with Jon Christensen (heard on the ECM album "Underwear", way back in 1971).
Bobo Stenson's steady and non-flamboyant career exemplifies a statement of Henry Threadgill's: "In jazz, in creative music, the race is not given to the swift. To make a real achievement you must have the endurance to stay the course."
"Serenity" brings his trio's work to a new plateau, drawing on the richness of the jazz tradition, on folk music, Cuban song, 20th century composition, and free playing. The choice of material is inspired. In addition to pieces by each of the trio members and collective improvisations, we hear two pieces by Hanns Eisler, one by Charles Ives, and one by Alban Berg, plus Wayne Shorter's "Swee Pea", singer/songwriter Silvio Rodríguez's "El Mayor" and two accounts of the Swedish folk tune "Polska of Despair" by Lorens Brolin.
Ives's "Serenity", which gives the album its title, is bassist Anders Jormin's adaptation of a 1919 song by the iconoclastic American composer, a song that originally set a hymnal text by John Greanleaf Whittier, beginning "O Sabbath rest of Galilee".
Berg's "Die Nachtigall", a setting of the poem by Theodor Storm, is from his Seven Early Songs (1905-8, revised for orchestra 1928). The work is in the tradition of the Romantic German Lied, and indicative of the transition from Schumann to Schoenberg. Hanns Eisler, of course, was Schoenberg's wayward student. His Der Pflaumenberg (a setting of Brecht) and Rimbaud Gedicht date from 1935 and 1950 respectively, times of great change in his life, when his work was first outlawed in the Third Reich, then hallowed in Hollywood.
Wayne Shorter's "Swee Pea" derives from his explosive "Super Nova" album with Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette, one of the most enduring artefacts of the jazz-rock era. And Lorens Brolin's "Polska of Despair", in sharp contrast, is a work that has been handed down through the Swedish oral tradition. Brolin, born in the small town of Abbekås in 1810, was a wandering fish-salesman from Skåne, in the southern part of Sweden. He walked the roads with his fish on his back. Alleged to have gypsy blood in his veins, his temper was legendary, as was his pro-pensity for stiff liquor (a spiritual affinity to certain Nordic improvisers will already be clear). But most of all he was a folk-music fiddler and folk composer of the greatest magnitude.
From the other side of the world, from far away Cuba, comes Silvio Rodríguez's "El Mayor". Ro-dríguez has been one of Stenson's enthusiasms for a long time - a passion shared with Anders Jormin, who has researched Cuban music at the source on several occasions. One of revolutionary Cuba's greatest folk/pop songwriters as well as a poet of distinction, Silvio Rodríguez started his career in the late 1960s as a member of a state-sponsored song collective, along with other nueva trova artists such as Pablo Milanes and Sara Gonzales. Rodriguez's penchant for interweaving complex yet highly memorable melodies is breezily translated into the jazz idiom by the Stenson Trio.
And these are just the cover versions... it's an extraordinary range.
In an interview with the German magazine Piano News last year, Stenson voiced his dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary jazz. "The musicians may be fine instrumentalists, the music may be well-crafted, but it's not as deep. When you listen to Coltrane and players of that calibre, you quickly understand how strong are the emotions that they're dealing with. I think we will see a return to the art of expression on that level. At least, that's my hope... And it's what I'm trying to do: to solve musical problems but also to express some strong feelings. I want to dive deep into the music."
The opening piece on the album, Anders Jormin's "T." immediately puts the policy into practise. Bell like harmonics from Jormin's bass and finely meshed rhythm patterns from Christensen establish a climate that Stenson feels his way into, exhibiting what The Guardian has called "a triumphant splic-ing of minimalism and intensity...awesome technique governed by patience rather than hyperactivity, and the ability to unfold extended improvised passages that sound meticulously composed."
Three powerfully atmospheric, improvised "prints" follow - "West Print", "North Print", "East Print" - each attributed to the trio member who is foregrounded. Here the musicians overturn conventional notions of solo playing. Jormin's feature on "North Print" is an exploration of tone, rather than a vir-tuoso showcase; Christensen "solos" quietly and freely through "East Print", as bass and piano adopt rhythmic roles.
Although jazz history has its crucial place in the music the trio makes, although Stenson still makes a point of acknowledging debts to Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Bobby Timmons, Bill Ev-ans and McCoy Tyner, it is clear that the trio's modus operandi has gone beyond standard definitions of trio responsibilities. And as Bobo says, "it's impossible to be a 'leader' of a group that has Jon Christensen in it. If anybody's the leader in a playing situation it's probably him, because you never know what he's going to get up to. But we can all go our different ways."
Stenson developed this theme in an interview with The Observer last year: "We play in the language of American jazz, but we put other things into the mix. We have different traditions, more from classi-cal music and folk music, and we pull those into the style of American jazz. First of all, Christensen doesn't play straight-ahead. He's more a painter, splashes of sound. More importantly, we don't need to play the American way, we can leave that and come back to it - we have a more free-flowing ap-proach. It allows you to take the music in new directions."
The wide listening habits of all the trio members make their perspective on jazz unusually universal. The qualities that Stenson first heard in Anders Jormin, for example, are not those that other jazz-trained ears might single out: "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 In-dian instrument, the sarod. That kind of dry beat on the string. He's got that, unconsciously." One hears this perhaps in the clipped phrasing of "Simple and Sweet". Stenson's helped to ensure that Jor-min's exceptional playing has had a wider hearing over the last decade. The pianist brought him, for instance, into the bands of Charles Lloyd (refer to "Notes For Big Sur", "The Call", "All My Rela-tions", "Canto"), and Tomasz Stanko ("Matka Joanna", "Leosia", "Litania") . They also play together on Don Cherry's final studio recording "Dona Nostra". Jormin additionally appears on the ECM al-bum "Further" by Jon Balke's Magnetic North Orchestra, and has six recordings as a leader on the Swedish label Dragon.
The Stenson/Christensen association was instigated in 1969 when the pianist and drummer came to-gether for a recording session under the aegis of Swedish trumpeter Jan Allen and since then they have been very frequent partners. They can be heard together on three records with Jan Garbarek - "Sart", "Witchi-Tai To" and "Dansere," as well as on Terje Rypdal's ECM debut album. Christensen's ECM discography is of course enormous - he plays on more than 50 discs for the label, including recordings with Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Miroslav Vitous, Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava, Mike Nock, Arild Andersen, Ketil Bjørnstad, Eberhard Weber, Misha Alperin, Shankar and many others.Press reactions to the Bobo Stenson Trio:
"Both traditions - European and American - are at work, and the effect is electric. With Jormin on bass and Christensen on drums, Stenson does not sacrifice rhythmic fluidity for mechanical exactness or lyric intensity for romantic indulgence, common failings of many European improvisers. There is a remarkable definition in his playing that is recognisably his own and he leaves spaces to inspire Jor-min and Christensen to react intuitively and subversively."Stuart Nicholson, The Observer
"Why it has taken until recently for Stenson to enjoy any real kind of mainstream recognition is any-body's guess but after high-profile tours with Tomasz Stanko and Charles Lloyd, he's currently building a following. The Stenson Trio is an amazing unit - driven largely by a continuous dialogue between the three instruments - and one that occasionally seems to think with one mind."Linton Chiswick, Time Out
"It's been a very long time since the Bill Evans Trio with Scott La Faro showed the way in equal-input conversational improvising between a pianist, a bassist and a drummer. Swede Bobo Stenson is one of the foremost European exponents of the same art. If you like melodically rich unplugged music of unexpected twists and turns, then this is a wonderful example. Stenson has a steely ruminativeness, bassist Anders Jormin follows and anticipates him like an alter ego, and drummer Jon Christensen is his usual caressingly propulsive self."John Fordham, The Guardian
"All three musicians sound like a band and yet are so distinct from each other. Credit that elastic rhythmic sensibility, allowing for tons of rummaging, all held together by Stenson's right hand. In fact, it is the pianist's right hand that defines so much of the music, creating the illusion of continuous improvisation all while he periodically makes his thematic statements, 'unhindered' by chords that play such a predominant role with other pianists."John Ephland, Down Beat
"The lyrically inclined, rhythmically strong Stenson has long been one of my favourite musicians, whether exploring modally open or more harmonically dense material: it's been good to see his lovely touch developed recently in such diverse contexts as the Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stanko groups. I feel the same about Christensen as I do about Stenson. Blessed with an acute awareness of dynamics, the drummer is a model of bar-slipping, cross-rhythmic intelligence..."Michael Tucker, Jazz Journal.
The Bobo Stenson Trio can also be heard on "Suite For Sampler/Selected Signs II", the newly-released anthology of music on ECM.
Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen are promoting "Serenity" with a Canadian tour and concerts in July. A full-scale European tour is currently being set up for autumn 2000.