Bobo Stenson: Faithful Yet Expansive
“ You want to be faithful, but then you try to take the vibe of the context of the piece, go on with it a little more, and take it a little further. ”
While the European jazz scene has been vibrant and forward-looking for decades, it's only been in recent years that some of its brightest stars have received the kind of exposure in North America that they've both deserved and enjoyed elsewhere. The German ECM label, in particular, has been responsible for generating renewed interest in aging but still active and innovative artists, including Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, to American audiencesnot only through recordings, but concert tours as well. Proof that art isn't static and that, for its best practitioners, it's a lifelong commitment.
Along with Stanko and Rava, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson is another artist long-associated with ECM whose profile has risen in recent years. Through his work with Stanko, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his own trio, his delicately-nuanced approach to interpretation is finally getting the attention it deserves. He may not have the cachet of a Keith Jarrett, but on his latest release, Goodbyefeaturing long-time musical companion, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Paul Motianhe demonstrates an equal improvisational élan; the ability to both get to the musical heart of things and take it to new and unexpected places.
The ECM Connection
Rena Rama and Meeting Anders Jormin
Bobo Stenson Trio
Serenity and Manfred Eicher's Involvement
Interpretation and Practice
Stenson's formative years weren't particularly extraordinary, although he did have the advantage of growing up in an environment filled with music. "I grew up in a musical family," says Stenson, "where everybody was playingmy brother, who was six years older than me, played drums. I started with classical piano at the age of seven, but got into jazz at twelve, probably because my brother brought jazz into the house. I used to play along with his record player, with people like Bud Powell, Miles Davis and George Shearing. But then I got more specialized. I grew up with Miles Davis and Bill Evans, also Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Bobby Timmons. I got into John Coltrane quite early; he ultimately became my big hero through the years."
The emigration of American artists to Europe in the '50s and '60s meant that young musicians like Stenson had an opportunity to gain early exposure and experience. "A lot of Americans came through," Stenson explains. "so I got to play with people like Don Cherryhe lived in Sweden for quite some time, and I got to know him. That was in the early 70s. I played with Dexter Gordon in the 60s. Because a lot of people came to Copenhagen to live, they also went to play in Sweden. And then others came via Norway, people like George Russell, who I got to work with quite a lot later on."
While not necessarily the best gig that Stenson had, a chance to work with saxophonist Stan Getz may well have proved to be the most auspicious. "I was playing with Stan Getz around 1970 with [drummer] Jon Christensen and [bassist] Arild Andersen," says Stenson. "I'd met Christensen a little before that, but with Getz we got to know each other well and after that I spent a lot of time in Norway, which was a very creative place at the timeand, of course, continues to be. Meanwhile, Manfred [Eicher, owner of ECM Records] had been introduced to [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek and also knew Arild, Jon and [guitarist] Terje Rypdal. He wanted to record us and it went from there.
"I did an album with Terje, Terje Rypdal (ECM, 1971), SART (ECM, 1971) with Garbarek, Terje, Arild and Jon, and then my own record, Underwear (ECM, 1971), with Arild and Jon," Stenson continues. "In the beginning we were like a little family. Then around 1973 I was supposed to do another trio record. I was at a festival in Warsaw with Don Cherry, and Jan, Jon and [bassist] Palle Danielsson were also there. We went to a jam session one night and it just took off for uspeople are still talking about that jam session, it was something else. And so we ended up forming the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet, and since I was supposed to be making a trio record, I said, 'let's do it as a quartet instead.'"
The resonance of Witchi-Tai-To (ECM, 1974) and Dansere (ECM, 1976) cannot be underestimated. Both albums introduced the players to North American audiencesaided, in no small part, by the fact that Garbarek, Danielsson and Christensen were also playing in Keith Jarrett's newly-formed European Quartet that released Belonging on ECM the same year as Witchi-Tai-To. If anything, hearing the same trio with two different pianists merely highlights the differences between Jarrett and Stenson. Jarrett is clearly the more overtly virtuosic of the two, but he's also a more dominant personalitysomething that has its pros and cons. Stenson's stronger ensemble emphasis meant that, despite Jarrett's group being clearly about collaboration, the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet felt more like a group of equals, rather than a weighted group led by a singularly strong musical personality.
Working with the three Scandinavians allowed Jarrett to break down the artificial border between the American jazz tradition and a burgeoning European aesthetic. The Garbarek-Stenson Quartet leaned even more to the European approach, incorporating elements of folk and classical music, and impacted by Scandinavia's relative geographic isolation. "We knew the American language," Stenson explains, "but we didn't need to be so close to the tradition. For American musicians it's more like their folk music, but we were able to open up to other cultures. We were always interested in classical music and folk music, so we put those things together. In Denmark, because of all the Americans that came to Copenhagen, the musicians were more into the American tradition, but we were a little more on the outskirts. The Finnish, who are even more isolated, have a special kind of music as well."