Pianist Bobo Stenson Discusses Solo Work and Freedom in European Jazz


​Pianist Bobo Stenson performs at the Church of the Gesù during the recent International Festival de Jazz de Montreal.

(Photo: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin)

Among the many allures of the recent International Festival de Jazz de Montreal was a mini-focus on ECM artists, the label now in its 50th year. And a clear highlight came when poetic virtuoso Bobo Stenson gave a rare solo-piano recital at the intimate Church of the Gesù.

Seated at a Steinway, Stenson laid out a fascinating, unbroken suite of music for just about an hour, demonstrating a cool, melancholy-tinged spirit, while deftly avoiding sentimentality. He seamlessly wended his way through tunes, some from his latest trio album, Contra La Indecisión, and ventured into spontaneity with a natural explorer’s touch. Elements of jazz freely intermingled with flashes of his classical training, folkish lyricism and his heritage as an improviser. It was a masterful journey, proving that his potent solo work is underrated, not to mention under-recorded.

Stenson, who turns 75 on Aug. 4, spoke with DownBeat backstage at the Gesù before his soundcheck and discussed life with ECM—an association dating back to 1971—playing solo and the freedom of Nordic performers.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you prepare for a solo concert. Is it different than preparing to play with a trio or other ensemble settings?

To prepare, what you can do is to try to be in rather good shape. But you do the same kind of preparation for trio playing; there is not such a big difference. I also play some material solo that I am playing with the trio.

But in solo mode, you are the ultimate boss and decider.

Yeah, yeah. I can go off somewhere and I can stop whenever I want. So, that’s a totally different thing.

You last performed at this venue in 2005 on a double bill with Fred Hersch; both of you played solo. Not to overly simplify the music, but I could hear his American-ness and your European-Scandinavian aesthetic. Do you think about those differences much?

First of all, the language is jazz. We were brought up with jazz music, and I always listened to American jazz. That’s how you do it. But then, when you go deeper, [Scandinavian musicians] are not much bound to the tradition like you are. Americans are much stronger in the tradition, because that’s your music, actually. It’s almost like an American folk music. It’s natural to be that way, and that’s great. We are a little bit more free in that sense. We can mix things up a little bit.

Most people play jazz also from that tradition, but there is a difference, especially in the Nordic countries, especially in Sweden and Norway. Denmark has been more in the American tradition, which also had to do with the fact that a lot of Americans settled in Copenhagen. We are a little bit more flexible, taking other traditions and mixing them up. If you go to Southern Europe, they are also more into traditional American jazz.

It also has to do with the personalities—the mental state—and it has to do with the climate, even. I think so, because we are different in the Northern countries, because of the climate. We are a little bit quiet and we stay inside much more than other places, which is natural when it’s cold. So, we have a little different [mindset], which naturally comes out in the music.

Was there a particular concept in mind when formulating your latest trio release, Contra La Indecisión?

More or less the same as we had done on the previous albums. We have what we think are nice pieces and songs, nice melodies, and this is the main thing that we go out from. And then we see what we can do with that. We don’t decide, “And now we’re going to do a piece like this and then a piece like this.” It just comes, what we find.

Bassist Anders Jormin is also a good composer; he is very busy with that. He always comes up with something, and then we usually do a kind of free improvisation. We have done that almost every time we have recorded—do something just on the spot, do some different takes and see which ones work the best. That’s also nice to do in the studio, which you don’t do so much in concert. There, you stay more with known material. But it’s fun to try to compose something on the spot.

Manfred Eicher has a strong interest in—and roots in—classical music, and you easily work classical qualities into your music along with jazz and folk traditions. Is that part of the basis of your rapport with Manfred—and ECM more generally?

No, I don’t think so. We have always been interested in classical music, and we also play a couple of classic pieces in the trio. Anders is also very much interested in this. For us, it has just been natural. We just find nice melodies, wherever. I think Manfred appreciates that, also. He can relate to those things, of course. But it’s not like we have discussions about these things.

With Manfred in fact, you’re very much free to come with what you want. You have to be well-prepared, so you don’t have to spend time in the studio for rehearsing and things like that. Of course, you do, anyway, and also there are always free things. But he doesn’t say, “Don’t do this.” He’s listening to what you have and finds out what you want to do with it. Then he gets a positive way of getting involved in it. DB

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