Bobo Stenson Offers New Dynamic at Stockholm Jazz Fest
Posted 11/6/2012

In Sweden, he’s known as Bobo. It’s a nickname that springs from a cultural unease with single-syllable names. Christened Bo, Bobo Stenson could’ve been given the more common moniker Bosse. But Bobo (pronounced “Boo-Boo”) seems like the perfect tag, the more apt way of experiencing someone who appears to be a tad formal but is really a mischief-maker underneath.

The pianist is in a jovial mood as he takes a seat in Stockholm’s elegant Grand Central Scandic Hotel. It’s the lunch hour, and there are smiles and comments about last night’s two sets at Fasching, Stockholm’s—and Sweden’s—premiere jazz-and-all-things-musical club (a balloon’s throw from the hotel). It was an October show that helped kick off the 2012 Stockholm Jazz Festival.

“Yesterday, we took it out a little bit,” Stenson says with a wry grin, referring to the music that borrowed heavily from his new CD, Indicum (ECM). It was music that included material not only from the new CD but other songs as well, expanding, for example, on the inspiration of early influence and collaborator George Russell’s 1972 classic album, Living Time. “We took some of those choruses out, just for fun.”

Stenson’s band features 33-year-old drummer Jon Fält, having replaced longtime colleague Jon Christensen in 2004. And with the steady Anders Jormin at bass since the mid-1980s, this is a band that carries that vibe of a long conversation, but one that’s also never shy of new blood. Throughout the festival, Stenson was a different animal than what most listeners have heard on any number of ECM recordings that feature him. His trio dates—especially recent delectables like 1999’s Serenity (with Christensen), Goodbye (2004, with Paul Motian) and 2008’s Cantando (Fält’s first recording with Stenson)—are described by critics as having “an uncanny ability to embrace silence,” “lovely” and “spacious and ethereal,” his piano playing “a delicacy of dynamics.”

When asked about Indicum and its unusual name, Stenson, 68, relays, “It’s Latin, or the older form from Greek, for ‘pigment, color.’” Speaking of musicians in general, he adds, “We are most used to the word ‘indigo.’ Musicians have an affinity with colors, blue and the blues in particular.” The title Indicum was, in his opinion, a smart choice, given his affinities with the color blue and the blues.

The new album continues a trend for Stenson. The pianist chose to record not in ECM’s usual Oslo haunt Rainbow Studio but at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, in Lugano, Switzerland. “It’s a concert hall, so it has a live situation,” he says. “But then you set up like you usually set up, with sound baffles. It’s a very nice room.” The result is one that carries a tune with an openness and elevation, but also a closeness that’s less obvious on the more spacious-sounding recordings the label is famously known for.

The mix is typical Stenson. A few fetching group originals with two by Jormin are seamlessly thrown in with some ingenious and rare covers of artists from different chapters of his life, beginning with Bill Evans’ sweet, sorrowful tune “Your Story.” When asked about Evans, who also collaborated with Russell on his Living Time recording, Stenson becomes animated. Laughing, giggling even, he first “revisits” Russell’s “Manhattan” (with Evans on board), from 1958, mimicking Jon Hendricks’ up-tempo, swinging narration about a “city so nice they had to name it twice.” He then recalls the time he replaced Evans during a mid-’60s visit to Stockholm. Under the weather, Evans stayed at Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund’s abode. And, because he was already a known quantity on the city’s music scene, Stenson suddenly found himself on the bandstand with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker. “I couldn’t believe this was happening! They were really kind to me,” he remembers fondly. “I’d played a lot of those songs that Bill was playing, so they hired me.” Along with a mesmerizing, methodical visit with Russell’s “Event VI,” from Living Time, another favorite is Cuban composer Ariel Ramirez, whose “La Peregrinación” waltz is full of lyrical longing but laced with a playful spirit. There’s even a lovely rendering of “Ave Maria.”

Listening to “pure jazz” from America in his youth, Stenson has blossomed into a multidimensional artist, incorporating the music of his country’s own rich folk tradition as well as the music he’s heard from all over the world. His roots have led to other roots. And his journeys have involved others in significant ways, his distinctive piano voice heard with the likes of, among others, Charles Lloyd, Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko, Don Cherry, not to mention George Russell (Listen To The Silence, 1971). “The jazz language is what we grew up with,” he recalls. “It was what we wanted and what we loved. That’s why we talk the way we do; that’s obvious.”

Along the way, Stenson has found contentment with Fält in a post-Christensen world, enjoying the company of Paul Motian for a spell in between Jon I and Jon II when he and Jormin toured the U.S. in 2005. Fält’s sense of time, use of space and youthful vigor all contribute to this perfect fit for the trio. Stenson met Fält when he was in his 20s during a workshop in Sweden. Later, in a club setting in Stockholm, Stenson remembers, “He was going to play some blues with another bass player, and I asked, ‘Why don’t you jump in and play a trio with us?’ Jon played with all this emotion, which was wonderful. Then we toured in Sweden and I played with him in England.”

As for Anders, and the contrary liveliness of their Fasching sets, he had this to say: “The conditions performing in a studio compared to live, like the other night in a crowded jazz club, are very different. In a studio-recording situation, you can and must relate to a resting silence. The room has actually no energy or atmosphere besides what we bring ourselves.”

Anders adds, “In a club situation, the silence is gone or will be created together with the audience, which fills the achieved focus—and the room itself—with the energy of hundreds of people. Acoustics are another phenomena that give different conditions. Recording in an empty concert hall, like we have done with the two last records, is totally different from doing music in a classical recording studio or in a cellar-like club. Each situation has its challenges and possibilities. For example, earphones or not can be compared to night and day. A perfectly tuned grand piano compared to a bad club instrument in serious need of renovation makes all the difference in the world, also for me as a bass player.

“Our audience sometimes notices that our records and live performances, both experiences praised, are so clearly different,” he continues. “I feel this is a quality and a natural result of creating the music in the moment, here and now.”

“A lot comes from Anders’ side,” Stenson says. “We have a lot in common. We have the kind of relationship where we love the process; we just work it out. We get to a point where we aren’t thinking or explaining, where we don’t destroy it.” Watching the three of them during that afternoon session hours before their Fasching show, it was obvious that the process was most often non-verbal, especially between Jormin and Stenson. “We know each other’s language,” Bobo attests. “We never talk about those things. Like with the group with Jan [Garbarek], Palle [Danielsson] and Jon [Christensen], you just do it. You have the same goal, same direction. We don’t have to rehearse.”

John Ephland


Bobo Stenson (Photo: Heiko Purnhagen)

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