Bobo Stenson: Faithful Yet Expansive
Following the breakup of the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet, Stenson seemed to disappear from the North American radar for over a decade, but in Europe he was anything but silent. In fact, concurrent with his ECM projects, he was co-leading a group with Swedish woodwind multi-instrumentalist Lennart Åberg called Rene Rama, which lasted twenty years. Stenson and Åberg would work with a number of bassists, including Danielsson and Jormin, and drummers including Bengt Berger, Anders Kjellberg and Billy Hart. While most of their records are sadly unavailable, two recordingsRena Rama (1973) and Inside-Outside (1979) have been collected onto a single CD, Rena Rama (Caprice, 2003). A date with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler is also available as The Lost Tapes (Amigo, 1997), and Don Cherry's final recording session for Dona Nostra (ECM, 1994) was, in fact, a Rena Rama album under Cherry's name. And while Rena Rama no longer exists, Stenson continues to work with Åberg, most recently on the duo record Bobo Stenson/Lennart Åberg (Amigo, 2003).
As auspicious as Stenson's early collaborations were, meeting Anders Jormin resulted in another long-standing musical partnership that's seen the two players collaborating in a variety of contexts. "I met Anders in the 80s," says Stenson. "Up until that time I had always played with Palle, we were really close. But then I got to know Andershe was quite young at the timeI invited him to play with Rena Rama, and we went on from there. We began to play in a trio with [drummer] Rune Carlsson, and I also played on a number of Anders' own projects including Nordic Light (Dragon, 1984) and Eight Pieces (Dragon, 1988). Then with Charles Lloydfirst with Palle, but Palle was unable to go on with itso I recommended Anders, and he stayed for quite some time."
Stenson had begun to play with Lloyd in 1988the beginning of an 11-year musical relationshipand, along with Danielsson and Christensen, played on Lloyd's first album following a six-year hiatus. Fish Out of Water (ECM, 1990) was also the beginning of Lloyd's relationship with ECM, and one that continues to this day. Lloyd's reputation for being rather cryptic in his musical directionstatements like "Give me some St. Petersburg," or "Take me to India!" are almost legendary. Stenson, ever the pragmatist, says "first, you don't take them so seriously! You know his language, what he means with those kinds of instructions, and immediately relate."
But understanding Lloyd's languageverbal and otherwiseis something that can only come from years of playing, and the kind of musical trust that develops through working together regularly. "I spent 11 year with Lloyd," Stenson says, "quite some time. We started in 1988 and I worked with him until just before the record he did with [guitarist] John AbercrombieVoice in the Night (ECM, 1999). We recorded four albums with AndersNotes from Big Sur (ECM, 1992), The Call (ECM, 1993), All My Relations (ECM, 1995) and Canto (ECM, 1997), and we played with a lot of drummersRalph Peterson, Billy Hart, Ralph Penland, Auden Kleive, Billy Higgins. I brought Billy Hart into the band. I'd met him years ago in Sweden, he was a guest at one point in Rene Rama, and then I used him on a big orchestra project. So we like to play together, and when Charles was trying different drummers for a couple of years, I said, 'Why don't you get Billy Harthe'd be the man for you!' And he listened to me, we had a good connection.
"Charles has leaned more to the American tradition in recent years," continues Stenson. "I think he wanted to go back to the sound he had with Gabor Szabo when he brought in Abercrombieit was different sound. Still, Charles was very good to me and I have to say that it meant a lot to me that someone could have such confidence in me. He'd bring me over to North America, and people would say, 'Why do you have this Scandinavian guy?' But he stood up for me and, of course, for Anders. We met last summer in Montreal, and we spoke about doing something together again."
In 1993 Stenson and Jormin began a relationship with Tomasz Stanko, and ultimately helped bring the Polish trumpeter back to the ECM fold. "I knew Stanko from years back," says Stenson. "He asked Anders and I to come to Poland to do a recording with him and [drummer] Tony Oxley, which became Bosonossa and Other Ballads (GOWI, 1993). That was a fun record, the first thing we did together. I think it's very freshit was fun, and so we went on.
"Then I was in the studio with Manfred," continues Stenson, "probably with Charles or something, and Manfred would always ask me what I was doing, so I told him about this group with Tomasz and he said, 'Wow, it would be fun to get in contact with Tomasz again.' So he was very interested in what we did, I told Tomasz to get in touch with Manfred and so he did and it started a new thing for him."
Stenson worked with Stanko from 1995 through 1997, appearing on Matka Joanna (ECM, 1995), Leosia (ECM, 1997) and Litania (ECM, 1997). Stanko's sense of freedom was altogether different from Lloyd's, but appealed equally to Stenson's strength as an intuitive player with big ears and an open mind, although Stenson is characteristically humble and self-effacing about it. "What shall I sayI'm open to a lot of things," Stenson explains. "I've always played a lot of different kinds of music with different people. It's not such a big thing for meif you understand the language, you go from there. You work along with it. Stanko's melodies were very detailed; but his melodies are always kind of open, not really harmonized, so you could take an open approach to them. And that's what he likesyou play the melody and then go out, totally free. Anders and I are a little more in the tradition; we want to have some kind of pattern or organization, so that's what we did. But we still had an open attitude. Stanko writes very special melodies."
What differentiates players like Stenson is the ability to bring a fresh perspective to the music, night after nightor, take after take. "I don't know how," Stenson says, "but I always think of it as a new thing. You can't avoid going back to things you've done, but I always want to create, to compose in the moment. A lot has to do with the surroundingswho you're playing with and how the people around you play...what kind of piano you have...all sorts of things. Often very subtle things that take you into different ways of hearing yourself and the music."