Stenson was born in Sweden in 1944 and though his early associations were with Norwegian musicians like saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen, he feels that Sweden actually was the nexus for jazz in the area before the rise of Copenhagen, Denmark as a destination for American ex-patriots. "Sweden was a good scene for jazz in the '50s or earlier than that because we were not involved in the war, the Second World War, he says. "After the war stopped, we could go on. I think that was a big advantage for Sweden in general and when you talk about the music. Swedish early musicians always had a good reputation and played with the Americans when they came over. Like most European musicians, Stenson's early influences were Americans: "...Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan, George Shearing, but that's more from my brother, Bud Powell, Bill Evans...when I was young I liked very much the swing and the thing.
It was actually an American musician who was the impetus for the creative Norwegian jazz with which Stenson would later be identified. "...They [Garbarek, Rypdal, Andersen, Christensen] had also played before me with George Russell. He had spent a lot of time in Norway and Sweden. We also made one record [Listen to the Silence, Concept 1971]. It was a really great time ... The whole period people really listened to jazz. Because the music that we played was not so easy, we went out there and played all kinds of stuff. But people seemed to be very open for that. I think that might be something special with the Norwegians, also for the Swedes but maybe I think especially the Norwegians.
Though Listen to the Silence was Stenson's first major appearance (his debut was a duet with Red Mitchell a couple of years before), the albums that began his long career of exploration were Garbarek's SART, Rypdal's eponymous release and the collaborative trio Underwear with Andersen and Christensen. Recorded in a span from April to August 1971 (all on ECM, with the Russell LP coming in that time as well), Stenson's reputation as a talented and open-minded improviser, as well as his relationship with ECM that continues to this day, was cemented.
Most of Stenson's recorded output has been on ECM, beginning with albums mentioned above (when the German label, led by producer Manfred Eicher, seemed to have a hand in every innovation happening in jazz at the time). These include the Norwegian collaborations but also albums made with a cast of musical luminaries like Charles Lloyd, Tomasz Stanko, Stan Getz and Don Cherry (when asked how it felt to be one of the few musicians who played with both Don Cherry and Stan Getz, Stenson replied, "That shows that you can be open to a lot of things. That's what I also like so much, that I can be involved in lots of things. Play different directions, its fun. ). But Stenson was quick to point out that many of the projects documented on ECM had existed before, growing organically, rather than being put together by the label. "I played with Charles Lloyd already in '88 and then in '89 [bassist] Palle [Danielsson] and Jon Christensen came to the band, he recounted. "And when Manfred Eicher, the record company, found out that the trio was playing with Charles, then he wanted to record us. Then I made five albums with Charles. And with [Polish trumpeter Tomasz] Stanko it's the same .... But that's how it goes, so it's not that the record company sets up things for you.
Currently Stenson's career has focused on that most elegant of jazz formats - the piano trio. "When you think about piano trio it is the piano leading the whole thing more or less, Stenson explained. "I never thought about those things or when we had that quartet with Garbarek for instance in the '70s I always thought that everyone should be equal in the band. The drummer should be free and do whatever he wants to and bring to the table. That table has been set in recent years by two stalwarts on the skins, Stenson's old Norwegian buddy Christensen and the seemingly-everywhere-these-days Paul Motian. "I think those two people, they have something in common very much I think. Maybe those two are the closest I think because they are totally free. Paul maybe has more tradition in him. He is history. But the approach to music, they are both totally free. They can both just stop playing and just hit one thing or set up something else. They have that in common.
It is when Stenson discusses the material on the trio's albums, that he shows off what makes him truly Nordic: a tolerant open-mindedness that is always looking for new opportunities. The new disc Goodbye, which has tunes by Steven Sondheim, Ariel Ramirez, Tony Williams, Vladimir Vysotsky, Gordon Jenkins and Ornette Coleman in addition to originals by the group members, belies any real agenda. "It really doesn't matter what music you play, the main thing is what you do with the music. So if you find a nice melody, something from wherever it comes from, you can always do something with it, if you like it and everyone likes it. But it doesn't mean that I am looking for things, it just happens to come to you. So we play some classical so to speak but it doesn't mean that we say now we have to put a classical piece on the album, it just happened to pass by. You hear something and you think wow, I'd like to do that.