Bobo Stenson at the keyboard in 2006 (photograph by Richard Kaby, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has been leading a trio with bass player Anders Jormin for more than 30 years. Over that time they have worked with a series of drummers, including Rune Carlsson, Jon Christensen, and Paul Motian. When Motian departed in 2007, he was replaced by Jon Fält, who is still with the group. The trio has been making recordings for ECM since Christensen’s tenure, the first album, Reflections, having been released in 1993.
The group’s latest album, Contra la indecisión, will be released this coming Friday. As is usually expected, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders. The album is named after its first track, a song written by the Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez, who has sometimes been called “Cuba’s John Lennon.” Stenson himself is solely responsible for only one track, “Alice,” while Jormin is the composer of three: “Doubt Thou The Stars,” “Three Shades Of A House,” “Oktoberhavet,” and “Stilla.” “Kalimba Impressions” is the joint product of the entire trio.
What makes Stenson particularly interesting, however, is his ability to appropriate source material from “external” (sometimes unlikely) sources and then work it into his trio’s style of performance. Stenson calls such adaptation “respectful transformation.” That includes identifying the possibilities for improvising departures from the source; but it may also entail taking a different point of view, so to speak. For example, his adaptation of a wedding song from the Slovakian village of Poniky is based on music originally collected by Béla Bartók during his ethnomusicological research of eastern European regions. Under Stenson’s hands the music barely sounds anything like a “folk form,” let alone how Bartók appropriated it for his own purposes. Yet the substance of the original song is still there and is brought into a new light by virtue of Stenson’s own individual keyboard style.
A more direct appropriation can be found in Erik Satie’s “Élégie,” the second of a set of three songs he composed in 1886. This track begins with a relatively clear account of both the piano part and the vocal line. (It also may have been inspired by the album Mélodie passagère, recorded by the Italian singer Alice, probably the “subject” of the track on this album of the same name.) Once that “groundwork” has been established, Stenson exercises his own brand of freedom to weave his improvisations.
Taken as a whole, the prevailing rhetoric of this album is one of quietude. However, that quietude provides a setting for some imaginative approach to reflection. Those who do not always want their jazz to be hard-driving will find much to discover in how this trio can tease out different possibilities for improvising once they have established their source material.