Bobo Stenson: A Scandi - Massage?

After listening to the Vijay Iyer Trio’s latest recording, Uneasy, I’ve had to scurry back to the work of Bobo Stenson (born 1944), the pianist whose trio with fellow Swede, the bassist Anders Jormin, and the Norwegian percussionist Jon Christensen, continues to set a high bar for post-Bill Evans Trio interactive performance. Their first recording for ECM Records goes back as far as 1993 (Reflections), which set the scene for two late-90s classic albums for the label, War Orphans (1997), an Ornette Coleman inspired title, and 1999′s Serenity, which now features on many ‘Top 100 Jazz Albums’ lists. Another 1997 recording. Leosia by Thomas Stanko, which features Stenson prominently, is another regular candidate for this list. The 1990s was thus a vital period for Stenson’s wider acceptance, after many years of ‘paying his dues’.

I first came across Bobo Stenson on the Witchi-Tai-To 1973 album, credited to The Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet. (Another candidate for the ‘Best 100′, imho.) This band’s obvious debt to The John Coltrane Quartet’s sound obviously made many think of McCoy Tyner, but Stenson’s role was subtly different to that of the Philadelphia keyboard giant: he brought a variety of influences to play throughout, folkish Spanish lyricism in ‘Hasta Siempre’, some funky tones at times, rolling grandiloquence in the 20-minute ‘Desireless’ (by Don Cherry, a definite highlight) and elements of bebop here and there. All in all, a magnificent performance and the subsequent Dansere (1975), though less intense, was still an album of equal leadership with Garbarek, who was then coming into his own particular pomp. The emergence of Euro-Scandinavian talent, through, in particular, the good graces of ECM Records, is surely one of the most inspirational of 1970s jazz narratives?

One could say that the era of ‘Scandi-Jazz’ had truly arrived by the mid-70s, what with the work of Norway’s bassist Arild Andersen (who had played with Stenson on the very early ECM recording Underwear, in 1971, with Christenson also in tow); that other great Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson (who, with the Norwegian Jon Christenson, formed the rhythm section of both the Keith Jarrett ‘European’ Quartet, who recorded the immortal Belonging in 1974, another mid-70s triumph for ECM, and also the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet); trumpeter Thomas Stanko himself, with his series of celebrated albums across the 90s and beyond; and another Norwegian, guitarist Terje Rypdal, to name just four. In his early adult years, Stenson, as had so many other creative Scandinavian musicians, played with visiting American masters such as Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Gary Burton and Don Cherry (who himself took up residence there in the late 60s). He was a member of the ‘folk-jazz’ band Rena Rama in the 70s (who eventually recorded  seven albums), and was also part of the successful 90s quartet with Charles Lloyd (who recorded five albums with ECM), participating in a group that has been compared to Lloyd’s influential 60s configuration with a very young Keith Jarrett, His contribution to Stanko’s Leosia, and the slightly later Litania: Music of Krzystof Komeda (the latter being easily the equal of the former, as far as I’m concerned) ensure that Stenson’s reputation is cemented in the music’s history.

I would totally recommend ANY of the recordings cited in this blog. Comparisons can be made to Keith Jarrett perhaps, in his melodic and rhythmic approachability and versatility. (Jarrett’s position in the jazz canon is still, mysteriously, in some doubt, but he will emerge, I am confident, as one of its undoubted masters.) Stenson is unapologetically ‘European’ in his playing, as Serenity, displays to the fullest extent, part of the generation that proved that there could be such a thing as ‘European Jazz’ (see also such UK manifestations as The Howard Riley Trio), and as the early catalogue of ECM Records (1970-75) fully bears out.  Bobo Stenson’s work over the past 20 years continues to bear out the fruit of this ‘tradition’.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.