In the trio context you know what to expect from Bobo Stenson. That right hand, crystalline, bright, dominating. It leads, it takes responsibility for the line, the narrative. Stenson sets up rhythmic tension; he dialogues with himself, poses questions and answers them; he alternates between concordant harmony and tight dissonance; but he is always in command. A Bobo Stenson solo will always get applause because when he vacates centre stage, his compelling personality and his right hand leave a void which then needs to be filled.
But take that responsibility for the melodic line away from him, and, as in last night’s quartet setting, give it to Martin Speake, and the range of possibilities has suddenly multiplied. Stenson draws from a huge palette of colour, can play a fascinating variety of different roles. In the first statement of the melody in Speake’s deceptively simple, scalar composition Lost in Transit , this freedom and variety in his playing were mesmerising. Just in this brief episode, Stenson played the tune in unison, he played a beat behind it, he supported it, subverted it, he caressed it, imitated it, mocked it, avoided it, smashed it with Don Pullen semitone clusters, comped under it, punctuated it with single repeated notes. He seemed to have an endless variety of choices. Complete freedom like this can be bewildering, but not for Stenson, who clearly relishes it.
The pairing of Speake and Stenson has now really gelled. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect context for Speake’s unique inward concentration and lyricism to come to the fore so convincingly. And Steve Watts on bass and sensitive, inventive drummer Jeff Williams are ideal foils for the two main protagonists.
The Vortex had deservedly given this gig, Stenson’s debut at the club, star billing in their February leaflet. The same players will be at the club again tonight, and they are definitely worth catching.