Bobo Stenson is one of the premier pianists in modern jazz, but you rarely hear him mentioned in the same breath with Tyner, Jarrett, or Hancock. Born in Sweden and a major player in Europe since the late ‘60s, Stenson has accompanied dozens of major artist on both sides of the Atlantic, and he has been recording sterling trio albums for ECM since 1971. His playing captures the stunning combination of lyricism and abstraction that many identify with ECM and the European scene generally. But he has surely been underestimated.
Perhaps now is the time for that to change. This new trio recording, Goodbye, was recorded in New York and, consequently, features the incomparable trio drummer and New Yorker, Paul Motian. Perhaps Motian—associated with the legendary piano trios of Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and Keith Jarrett—will bring a different audience to Stenson’s trio work. Also including Stenson’s longtime mate, Anders Jormin on bass, this trio sculpts landscapes—little glades up to whole mountain ranges—from hammers, strings, and skins.
You’re excused if you drop this disc in your player and take it for granted at first. It has that ECM sheen, the gliding impressionism and misty beauty that Manfred Eicher seems to grow in Scandinavian groves. The session certainly shares characteristics with the latest from Tord Gustavsen (The Ground), but the distinctions are plain on closer listening. Gustavsen’s pianistic art is deeply based in American gospel music and other folk sources, built around hooky original tunes that roll with a subtle backbeat. Stenson is purely a jazz player, but one steeped both in nontraditional sources and free improvising. Though Stenson plays with supreme lyricism, his essential orientation is abstract. Did I mention that he co-led a quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek? He shares Garbarek’s steely approach to beauty—those mountain ranges are sculpted of ice.
A terrific example is the trio’s take on a Tony Williams tune, “There Comes a Time”. Williams wrote the tune for his high octane Lifetime band, but Stenson, Jormin, and Motian begin it with angular impressionism. Rather than play pretty chords, Stenson uses repeated notes—almost like echoes—beneath Jormin’s spacey bowed bass. Motian is in and out, rattling mallets, shimmering on metal, then buzzing his snare. For almost three minutes, the trio traces a stern pattern, until Stenson leads them into a gentle groove using hip minor chords that eventually bleed upward into a solo with as much Monk and Nat Cole as Jarrett or Hancock. Compared to Gustavsen’s work, this track is both more traditional (referencing Stenson’s roots in classic jazz) and more “out”.
The trio’s approach to standards is intriguing. Both “Goodbye” and “Send in the Clowns” are known more as vehicles for singers than as jazz standards. And the trio is willing to “sing” them in their own style—with a tempo-less meditation at first and then a discursive ballad swing that makes every improvised line sound eternal. When “Goodbye” gets into tempo, Motian refuses to steadily swing it, and so the voices of both the piano and bass are constantly leaking through the tempo, carrying the groove themselves. The Sondheim tune is played nearly without tempo, Motian setting up a rain storm of drizzle around the familiar melody. But Stenson plays it expansively and never cute, rolling the chords and then stuttering them in repetition, never lapsing into rhythm tricks or gospel groove or cute licks. Stenson and his trio play these standards with neither reverence nor gimmickry.
It makes sense that the trio bring an almost severe kind of swing to a tune by Henry Purcell, the baroque composer. Stenson sounds somewhat more “Jarrett” here, but the rhythm section does not, playing with almost martial precision. Still, it’s a walking bass line and four-per-measure on the ride. There is perhaps as much classicism in the trio’s reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face”, which gives the boys an excuse to put a bit more coal on the fire. Stenson plays the theme with Monkian dissonance, then works that two-note motif into his solo. As ever, Stenson plays much more like a traditional jazz player who loves the avant-garde than like an “ECM pianist” looking for an excuse to recreate The Koln Concert. The band is actually “cooking” on this tune.
More than half the program, however, consists of original tunes by all three musicians. The Motian tunes are filled with space—jazz blocks of Swiss cheese that allow the bass or the piano to spill through the gaps. Jormin’s tunes tend toward the lyrical (“Rowan” or “Seli”), while Stenson’s tunes are more fragmentary or sharp—Giacometti sculptures in sound. They round out a program that could come from no other group—a sure sign that these guys matter to the music.
It takes a great deal to be truly different or distinctive in jazz today. There are so many great players, and the general history of the music has already been written, so we often sense that today’s musicians are left merely to sort through the styles to cobble together a derivative identity. But Bobo Stenson, over 35 years of steady exploration, has something different to say. It’s not different in a flashy way, but it is a unique vision, one that echoes a lifetime of playing with Tomasz Stanko, Jan Garbarek, and scores of traveling legends. The guy—a true individual—deserves your ear.