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Bobo Stenson: A Discography

Budd Kopman By

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This article has been updated since its original 2006 publish date.

Over the course of forty years, pianist Bobo Stenson (born 1944, Vasteras, Sweden) has been able to adapt himself to contribute in whatever way is necessary for the music at hand. Always being himself yet never calling attention to his prowess, he plies his skills on projects and always ends up leaving his mark.

As a leader, he is an alchemist who can extract, expose, and elevate the essence of a composition. Stenson's intensity is quite reserved, and the resulting impact of his music is cumulative rather than showy. A solo might never get very loud or fast, but—especially in trio settings, where his partners pick up his growing flame—the music can become dense and extroverted before falling back.

Stenson's music is based on space. Each note almost always has some space around it, separating it from its neighbors, creating the feeling of calm and of not rushing, no matter how fast the notes are played. The dynamics of the notes in a line can vary widely, and many times he plays a "ghost" note that is just hinted, which is idiomatic saxophone phrasing.

His phrases twist and turn, changing direction without warning, but which always move forward toward a goal, thus leading the listener but never being predictable. Finally, his sense of time is so strong that he can play out of time when there is a pulse, yet keep the sense of connection to the beat, and also play in time when there is no clear pulse, maintaining the tension that results.

What is always fascinating to observe is the web of musical and personal relationships that develop over such a long career.

The releases below are dated as follows: release (recording).

Sections: As a Leader | As A Sideman

As a Leader

Bobo Stenson Trio
Indicum
ECM 2223
2012 (2011)
Tracks

Indicum finds the Bobo Stenson Trio picking up where Cantando left off, but now Fält is fully integrated, adding his own character to the strong voices of Stenson and Jormin. The tune mix is similar to the earlier record with Bill Evans' "Your Story" played as a solo tribute, George Russell's "Event VI" paired down to its essence, much like "Send In The Clouds" from Goodbye and the Norwegian traditional song "Ave Maria" is given a loving, beautiful treatment.

All of Stenson's strengths are on display: his use of space, the careful building of his lines, his singing tone, his wide range of musical tastes and influences as well as his understated intensity combined with a deep musical intelligence. Indicum is not only a follow-up to Cantando, but solidifies everything about Stenson and this trio. See here for a John Kelman's full review.

Bobo Stenson Trio
Cantando
ECM 2023
2008 (2007)
Tracks

Cantando must be ranked among Stenson's highest achievements since the monumental double CD Serenity (ECM, 2000). The essence of the art of Stenson (and, of course, his trio) is the mixture of a "classical" attitude where every note counts and at least feels as if it is placed with a thoughtful preparation, an intensity that never strains but rather is light and understated, and a joyful exuberance which runs through everything and continually surprises.

This trio is all about precision. Stenson's piano technique is based on the way each note is surrounded by space, yet is connected, while Jormin has one of the tightest sounds in the business, and a command of technique (particularly harmonics, both plucked and bowed) that is astounding. Fält is essentially replacing Christensen, Paul Motian's appearance on Goodbye (ECM, 2006) notwithstanding, and plays with incisiveness, giving every sound a purpose with youthful vigor, supporting the band while continually pushing it.

Bobo Stenson Trio
Goodbye
ECM 1904
2005 (2004)
Tracks

Goodbye is the fourth ECM recording by Stenson in a trio and the first with Paul Motian in the drum chair. To even maintain much less supercede the quality and intensity of the music on Serenity would be quite a task. The music of Goodbye seems a bit more approachable, less "abstract" and more melodic than that of Serentiy without sacrificing any of the intensity of the trio.

Starting the disc with "Send In The Clowns" feels like a statement of purpose, as if Stenson is saying, "listen to the core of the tune: this is my art." The very essence of this well known tune, melodically, harmonically as well as emotionally is distilled out, producing its very nectar. "Race Face," which ends the disc is obviously a Stenson favorite, since he recorded it on Dona Nostra (1993) and revisits it here. Its mood is decidedly different, more American jazz if you will, but given the Stenson treatment, and the group really takes off and drives intensely forward, with much more of feel of the blues, but nothing overt.

The title tune is by the fairly obscure composer/arranger Gordon Jenkins, which was used by Benny Goodman to close his shows, and comes as close to a standard ballad as anything else Stenson has recorded, while once again, the emotional and music kernel of the piece is exposed and brought to the surface. Stenson and Jormin demonstrate they know each other, and Motian slips effortlessly and forcefully into the roll that Christensen filled for so long. This is true trio music where the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts, which nevertheless remain distinct.

Bobo Stenson Trio
Serenity

ECM 1740/41
2000 (1999)
Tracks

Containing more than ninety minutes of music on two discs, Serenity is simply astounding. Stenson's trio has created a lake that is so deep and wide, yet crystal clear, it would take weeks to fully explore. The overall mood is quite subdued yet tension and intensity are always lurking beneath the surface, as with Jormin's "T" and immediately followed by four short, abstract, free "Prints," which start Disc 1.

Instead of choosing an Ornette Coleman tune, this time Stenson picks Wayne Shorter's "Swee Pea" (from Super Nova), which in its original form is an eerie wisp of a tune, but here is introduced by faint percussive effects by Christensen leading to Jormin's arco playing that almost voices harmonics on every note, echoing Shorter's mournful soprano. The bass vamp that is set up threatens to take off, but never does, and Stenson's playing just barely adds to the melody.

On Disc 2, Silvio Rodriguez is revisited by "El Mayor" (the first time was "Oleo de mujer con sombrero" from War Orphans). The core of the disc could arguable be said to be "Die Nachtigal" by Alban Berg, "Rimbaud Gedicht" by Hanns Eisler and the title tune, "Serenity" by Charles Ives. The Berg line is made to almost feel like a waltz as it drifts in and out of a subtle triple meter and becomes almost a song; one can almost see Berg smiling, saying, "Yes, that is how my music should be played."

Eisler, who is also represented on Disc 1, has his tune supported by an intense Christensen on snare and cymbals as Stenson and Jormin let it sing out. Ives is hardly the stuff of what is normally considered jazz material, but here is used as grist for the Stenson/Jormin/Christensen mill with each player contributing to an ethereal sound, each taking the lead at different times. Serenity is to be sipped slowly and thoughtfully.

Bobo Stenson
:rarum VIII

ECM 8008
2002 (1971-99)
Tracks

The :rarum series enables an ECM artist himself to choose tracks from his whole career and present them as a sampler. If you have never heard Bobo Stenson on ECM, this is a very good way to hear his work over an almost thirty year period. Selections are from Serenity (3), Dansere (1), Dona Nostra (2), War Orphans (1), The Call [currently unavailable in the U.S.] (1), Leosia (1), Witchi-Tai-To (1), Reflections (1), Underwear [as of now, out of print] (1) and All My Relations (1). See the more detailed descriptions to get an idea of the music created by this remarkable artist.

Bobo Stenson Trio
War Orphans

ECM 1604
1998 (1997)
Tracks

Beginning with the beautiful Silvio Rodriguez tune "Oleo de mujer con sombrero," Stenson almost immediately hits an exposed altered note that dramatically bends the harmony. His trademark way of emphasizing certain notes by dynamics and by the "ghost" notes is on display for everyone to hear in the unaccompanied introduction.

Jormin's compositions are represented by "Natt," "Eleventh of January" and "Sediment," and his melodic bass playing style, huge sound and use of vamps and ostinati give structure to the slowly unwinding melodies. Stenson's predilection for the tunes of Ornette Coleman shows with "All My Life" and the title tune, which could be seen as a summary of everything Stenson. The quiet intensity, the sense of large space being created by implying rather than stating, Jormin's arco playing that almost voices harmonics around Stenson's line all add up to deep feelings being expressed.

Not a prolific composer, Stenson's "Bengali Blue" seems built out of nothing at first except Jormin's deep bass and Christensen's light yet driven drumming. War Orphans is music that is like pure dark chocolate which melts slowly in your mouth into a rich complexity of flavors.

Bobo Stenson Trio
Reflections

ECM 1516
1996 (1993)
Tracks

The first record with the trio that will continue with War Orphans, Serenity and Goodbye, Reflections starts off with "The Enlightener" which sounds almost like a "standard" tune at first, but, with the extremely long section on a pedal point, goes off in an entirely unexpected direction.

George Gershwin's "My Man Is Gone Now" is taken apart and the very essence of the beautiful tune is laid bare, much in the manner of "Send in the Clowns" on Goodbye. There are three other tunes by Stenson including "12 Tones Old," which is either based on a 12-tone row or explicitly visits all twelve keys, while nevertheless feeling tonally centered and is, of course, musical and not an exercise. The core line is explicated more clearly in Plunge.

Jormin contributes the enigmatically entitled "Not" and "Q," where the gift of his huge sound, rhythmic clarity and melodic inventiveness is displayed. Also clearly shown here is the near ESP that is present between Stenson and Jormin. "Mindatyr," the longest track by far, starts with a vaguely South Asian feel as Jormin plays arco for the long introduction, until a bass pattern signals the tune proper as the band gradually heats up around a solid rhythm, only to eventually fall back and fade away.

Bobo Stenson Trio
Very Early

Dragon 304
1997 (1986)
Tracks

While Anders Jormin is in this trio as he is in the later work, the music here, at least in the first half, feels entirely different than its closest relative Reflections, recorded seven years later. This is a more standard affair, with straightforward rhythms provided by Carlsson, and many times a walking bass line by Jormin. Even the "arrangements" of the tunes in the first half are standard: piano, bass, piano. The familiar Stenson style of the later years is, however, audible: the individual note dynamics, the spaces between phrases, the building of a solo.

The second half of the disc (especially from "Pavane" onward), however, sounds much more like what is commonplace later, including Stenson's predilection for the tunes of Ornette Coleman ("Ramblin'"). In his later work, the atmosphere becomes more diffuse, but perhaps gains in intensity, with the biggest difference being that between the drumming of Carlsson here and Christensen/Motian later.

As A Sideman
About Bobo Stenson
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