In the latest of our series where musicians write about their inspirations and idols, pianist and writer Mike Collins writes about Bobo Stenson
Mike Collins writes: I’m not sure which came first in my personal voyage of discovery in jazz; the realisation that a particular ‘sound-world’ had a special resonance and sense of rightness for me, or the dropping-of-a-penny that a surprising number of the touchstone recordings I’d discovered featured Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. Either way, I’ve slowly come to recognise what’s going on in the music that’s formed an often subconscious template or starting point for music I’ve tried to make. Being perhaps a little slow on the uptake, I also gradually spotted a few of the connections between different pieces I’d come to love, a striking link being of course one Bo Gustav Stenson, aka Bobo.
A still youthful Bobo released a trio recording, Underwear, on ECM in 1971 with Norwegians Arild Anderson and Jon Christensen for company, recorded just a few months before Keith Jarrett was in the same studio recording Facing You. By that timeStenson had been active on the Swedish and Scandinavian scene for a few years, playing with visiting Americans including Sonny Rollins and notably Don Cherry who’d settled there in the late 60s . There have been a dozen or so subsequent recordings on the now fabled ECM label under the Stenson name in the intervening period and extended collaborations with Jan Garbarek, Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stanko amongst others.
A certain feeling for space, treatment of melody, unmistakable grounding in an open jazz harmony, comfort with spontaneity in improvisation as well as with structure, patience with pacing, all are features I associate with his playing. There is always however a visceral feeling of groove and momentum to my ears, that is somehow distinctively Bobo. That’s all hindsight of course. My ten tracks from the Stenson 50-odd year career, represent a personal listening journey with an occasionally switch-back chronology. Reinforcing the point about ‘slow recognising’, the first three of these tracks were reference points for me before I noticed that Bobo was on all of them.
- Desireless from Witchi Tai To, Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet 1974
A friend brought this tune to a rehearsal for our newly formed band in the early 90s. A Don Cherry theme, anthemic and rubato followed by a trancey 15 minutes or so on D-minor, Palle Danielsson’s bass riff driving it along. I loved the loose togetherness and emotional heft of the theme and then the slow build of the solos on the modal vamp, piano first, gradually emerging from the clatter.
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- Tales of Rumi from Canto, Charles Lloyd, 1997/ in two parts
I listened to this with those band-mates, delighting in the slow, patient development and organic interaction, gradually establishing an atmosphere and dancing riff that anchors the theme. The first sounds are from Anders Jormin’s bass, Stenson eventually joins playing along with the bass’s percussive riff, inside the piano. It’s nearly 7 minutes before Lloyd’s keening tenor slides in, by which time Stenson, Jormin and Billy Hart on the drums have developed an irresistible momentum. So much comes from simple materials.
- Ballad for Bernt from Litania, Tomasz Stanko Septet, 1997
This tune, from an album celebrating the music of Krzystof Komeda, was one introduced to me by someone as ‘an interesting one to play’ as I was trying to get to grips with playing ballads. It’s a slightly unusual 10 bar form, but otherwise straight ahead jazz ballad, beautifully played on this recording. It’s not a piano feature, but there’s a ‘just-so’ short solo and accompaniment as well as Bernt Rosengren’s sumptuous reading on tenor (apparently the Bernt of Komeda’s title).
- “Song” from “The Call”, Charles Lloyd, 1992
The association with Charles Lloyd began in the late 80s and there’s a string of albums. This earlier one has the same line-up as Canto. Another long intro opens with piano this time . There are almost bluesy phrases but with a crisp edge to them. Jormin weaves in after a few minutes and the chemistry between the two lines is electric. A flowing swing feel evolves and Stenson is flying. Charles Lloyd finally dives into the flow over half-way through.
- Reflections in D from Reflections, Bobo Stenson Trio, 1992
I first saw Bobo Stenson live with his trio at Pizza Express in London in the early 90s with Anders Jormin and Jon Christiansen. My abiding memory is firstly a breathtaking solo rendition of an Ellington tune (I remember it as Solitude), and secondly being enraptured by Anders Jormin’s casual melodic virtuosity. This piece is from the trio release of that period, and the rendition of another Ellington piece is quintessential Stenson Trio, faithful to the original but infused with space, pacing and textures that are entirely personal. The Stenson-Jormin interaction is an essential and enduring bit of the jigsaw.
- Oleo de Mujer Con Sombrero from War Orphans, Bobo Stenson Trio, 1997
This piece is the first of a series of songs by Silvio Rodriguez that Stenson has recorded with the trio. The reading of the songs by the trio are always arresting in the catch-the-breath elegance and beauty of the melodic content and, if you track down the originals, startling in the way they have been transmuted. Rodriguez is a feted Cuban singer-songwriter with a huge oeuvre and the trio’s covers are faithful to the melodic and harmonic shape, but they work some magic with them. These tunes, never more than one per album, have become an idiosyncratic but deeply satisfying route through a series of trio recordings for me.
This performance from War Orphans stops the clock for me on every hearing. Stenson lays out the melody over chords voiced with a layer of astringency before a gently rocking groove picks up, Jormin and Christiansen adding accents and pushes in surprising places. Jormin’s lines are as much counterpoint as conventional bass lines, echoing little decorative flurries from Stenson. The loose, grooving flow wrapping around Stenson’s sparkling lines have become one of the defining sounds of this trio.
- El Mayor , from Serenity, 1999, Bobo Stenson Trio
This is another Silvio Rodriguez tune, interpreted more freely, with a loose impressionistic statement of the theme. It becomes a spiraling, meditative conversation between the piano and bass, although somehow the sense of the melody is never far away. Christiansen is all texture and whispers of cymbals on this.
- Olivia, from Cantando, Bobo Stenson Trio, 2007
Cantando was the first album on which percussionist-drummer Jon Fält joined the trio, and he brings even more subtle colours and freedom to the sound. Olivia starts with a rhythmic flutter from harmonics on the bass with Fält rustling and shading. Stenson’s piano sketches a figure on top and then unfurls another Rodriguez melody, the touch and feel at the piano makes this really sing.
- Die Nachtigall, from Serenity, Bobo Stenson Trio 1999
It doesn’t seem to matter what the source material is, something in the phrasing, and feeling for pulse makes Stenson and the trio unmistakable. Here they take a piece by Austrian composer Alban Berg, hinting at where some of the language that has become woven into Stenson’s playing. As ever they stay close to the original piece but stretch out and make it ebb and flow.
- Canción Contra La Indecisión, from Contra La Indecisión, Bobo Stenson Trio, 2018
This is the first track from their 2018 album. Listening for the first time was like hearing the familiar accents of old friend. It’s a Rodriguez tune again, kept quite short, and played quite directly with an almost muted Jarrett-like country feel, Stenson and Jormin nudging the tune around with their contrapuntal flurries.