Bobo Stenson makes sublime piano-trio records without over-playing. It’s pulsating, with long improvised phrases; it’s alive.
– Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
The current incarnation of Bobo Stenson’s Trio, with Anders Jormin on bass and percussionist Jon Fält, has been active for almost two decades now, during the course of which they’ve recorded four albums – including this new one. The first, Cantando (2008), further investigated Bobo’s fluent ability to cover a wide range of influences and idioms, seamlessly integrating the new configuration into his personal sound from the start. The record prompted The Guardian to say, “few contemporary jazz groups sustain an atmosphere as evocatively as Swedish pianist Stenson’s trio, or conjure so many moods across a variety of material from Ornette Coleman to Alban Berg”. Praise continued with follow-up Indicum (2012), The New York Times noting that Bobo “is rightly heralded for his subtleties of touch and mood”, and then again with Contra La Indecision in 2018, which BBC Music Magazine called a “beautiful session”, proving ”that there is still much to be explored and revealed within this format.” More revelations and proof of the trio’s distinguished art are ever-present on Sphere.
“We don’t have a way of playing ‘ready-made’,” Bobo explains. “Things crystallise in the moment and we adjust to that. And that’s the quintessence. That’s the joy of playing together, to never do the same thing twice and to be determined about that.” From that confident joy and openness for the spontaneity of the moment is borne a particularly emotive brew on Sphere, with the pianist, bassist and drummer conjuring a poignant, pensive atmosphere through soft-spoken interplay with gentle yet agile emphases. In the trio’s approach to improvisation lies a heightened sense of experience and command. Anders concurs with Bobo when he says, “as an improvising artist, you have to learn time and time again that you can’t ever be entirely sure of something. You have to embrace that uncertainty, and be confidant about that embrace.”
Like the three previous albums, Sphere was recorded at the Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano, and the room’s distinctive acoustics play into the trio’s sound, intensifying the searching nature of their communication. Going into the studio with “more songs than usually”, as Jon Fält points out, the trio boiled down the material to a concentrated investigation into originals and music inspired by compositions from Scandinavian composers Alfred Janson, Per Nørgård Sven-Erik Bäck and Jean Sibelius. Anders: “Once we go into the studio we have more material than we believe will end up on the album, because we are improvising, so you never know. It’s also a collaboration with Manfred Eicher, who is of course a very creative artist himself, so the way we play is also developed together with Manfred. ”
The result of the prolific partnership between the trio and producer is marked by serene motions, a light touch and swift action, with part of the repertory being carved from 20th – 21st century compositions, transfigured and molded into colourful explorations of pace, rhythm and timbre. Danish composer Per Nørgård’s “You shall plant a tree” – originally set to words by the poet Piet Hein – bears hymnal cadences and appears twice, bringing the album full circle. The trio also refashions two pieces by Swedish composer Sven-Erik Bäck, bringing an ambient quality of acoustic discovery to “Spring” and turning “Communion psalm” into a platform for attentive rubato interplay, each player mindful of the space between them.
Among the originals in the programme are “Unquestioned Answer” – a stirring tribute to modernist composer Charles Yves – and “The red flower”, which offers a rare window into the group’s gentle approach to swing. In return, “Kingdom of Coldness” gives rise to some of Bobo’s most fluent lines, framed in bountiful interplay. As for “Ky and beautiful madame Ky”, a piece that borrows from the late Norwegian composer Alfred Janson, Bobo remarks how “normally we played it in a different way than how we recorded it. Manfred had lot of ideas about what we could do with the song and remodelled it with us. It brought something very new into the mix. But that’s what he does. He brings out the musicians’ best qualities. He feels what they are capable of doing in the moment, and then he captures that.” Lastly, Jean Sibelius’s “Valsette op. 40/1” through the trio’s lens is an exercise in deconstruction, where the subject doesn’t reveal itself until the very last bars, still in disguise.