Bobo Stenson: Faithful Yet Expansive
With Stenson back in a big way on ECM, it's no surprise that he began to release records featuring his own trio. While the trio with Jormin and Carlsson dates back to the mid-1980s, releasing Very Early on the Dragon label in 1987 (and reissued on CD in 1997 with bonus material), by the time the trio came to record Reflections (ECM, 1996) in 1993, Jon Christensen was back in the drum chair. "Jon started playing with us in the early 1990s," says Stenson. "I've always loved drummers. I have a drum set myselfI don't play very well, but I've fooled around with it. But I always loved drummersthey may be the most important instrument in a band. It sets the pace, gives the colour of the band. And with drummers giving you those hits here and there, I love the different ideas that you get. Christensen is exceptional; he can really turn the time in different ways that you don't expect. He's very loose, very elasticalthough he's also a strong time player. Oh, my God, in the 1970s you couldn't believe it sometimeshe could swing like hell!"
Stenson's "The Enlightener," the opening track on Reflections, is a perfect example of how Stenson and the trio tread the line between form and freedom. It opens with an almost painfully beautiful melody, but soon opens up into an ostinato where the trio takes things farther afield. "I think it can go either way," Stenson says. "If it goes in a free direction, then fine, you go with that. And if you stay in a more defined rhythm, you do that. It's great working with a drummer like Christensen, as he's a very open drummer who can go either way."
Reflections and its follow-up, War Orphans (ECM, 1998), were strong outings, demonstrating an almost frightening level of telepathy between Stenson, Jormin and Christensen on a repertoire that included original compositions by Stenson and Jormin, as well as material ranging from Ellington and Gershwin to Ornette Coleman and Silvio Rodrigueza personal favourite of Jormin's, and a composer that the bassist continues to cover on his own projects to this day. But Serenity (ECM, 2000), a double-disc set that would be Christensen's last recording with the trio, raised the bar even higher, with the inclusion of improvisationally-minded interpretations of classical pieces by Charles Ives, Hanns Eisler and Alban Berg fitting comfortably with new looks at material by Wayne Shorter and, of course, Stenson and Jormin.
The album was different for a number of reasons, not the least being where it was recorded. Unlike Reflections and War Orphans, which were recorded at engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug's Rainbow Studio in Oslohome of many classic ECM recordingsthe sessions for Serenity took place at the HageGården Music Center in Brunskog, Sweden. "That was a very special recording," Stenson explains, "it was a very special place in the Swedish countryside. We all stayed therea wonderful place with a great piano. We got the technician out there, we all stayed and they cooked for us, there were wonderful rooms, we could take nature walks and the piano was just 10 meters away, so we spent time there, and got really together, it was a really nice recording. We were also recording in one big room, no booths, no separationjust a few baffles. That was a very nice atmosphere; we didn't need headphones, just the room sound."
Serenity is also an example of just how involved Eicher can get in a session. The two improvised pieces "More Cymbals and "Extra Low" are, in fact, surprising collaborations between Eicher, Jormin and Stenson. "Manfred actually sat down at the drums and played," Stenson says. "At one point Manfred sat down behind the drums and said, 'roll the tape,' we were laughing, it was cool. We gave one piece the title 'More Cymbals' because that's one of his common expressions through the years.
"He's very involved most of the time," Stenson continues. "He wants to be involved in the process, to be a part of it. He often comes up with good ideassometimes you can get stuck in a studioyou have to record a tune and try multiple takesbut he can open things up with creative ideas. Sometimesnot always of coursehe'll get right down into the arrangements. He wants to be part of it and he can really hear when the musicians are getting loose and starting to create. So he's a very good producervery involved, and one who wants to do something, as opposed to some producers who just sit and read the paper. He's also very involved with the mix; he really just goes for it.
"He's also very involved with the sequencing of the tracks," Stenson concludes. "That has become more and more important for him; I think it has to do with commercial interests. In the last few years you really have to get the audience into it, attract them with something that will keep them listening. Still, he looks at an album as a whole rather than just a collection of individual pieces, and will let an album open up very abstractly, for example."