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Bobo Stenson Trio

Live: The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock 23/10/2008


by Ian Mann

October 28, 2008


Stenson's Trio triumph against the odds

It had not been a good day for Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and his Trio. Currently engaged on a short UK and Ireland tour the trio had played the previous night at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. They subsequently flew down to Birmingham before completing the short journey to Much Wenlock.

Unfortunately the baggage handlers at Edinburgh airport had contrived to mislay Anders Jormin’s double bass (how could they lose something that big?) and he was forced to play the Much Wenlock show on a borrowed instrument. The sanguine Swede took it all in his stride and Jormin and his colleagues delivered an evening of marvellous music despite this fairly major setback.

Stenson has been a mainstay of the ECM roster for over thirty years making his début recording for the label back in 1971. He subsequently co- led a quartet with Jan Garbarek, and has appeared on albums by Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stanko as well as making numerous recordings as a leader in the piano trio format.

The trio’s most recent release “Cantando” featuring the exciting young drum discovery Jon Falt has received universal critical acclaim and is arguably Stenson’s best album yet. Now in his early sixties Stenson, like our own John Taylor is at last attracting the plaudits which have long been his due.

Stenson is not a prolific writer, a factor that may have adversely affected his profile. However he has always selected interesting outside material with tonight’s programme including material from Purcell to Piazzolla, a couple of pieces from Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodriguez plus compositions from bassist Jormin.

The last time I saw this line up was in 2004 at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club. Falt was new to the band, filling the shoes of illustrious predecessors in the forms of Jon Christensen and Paul Motian. At that time I found him too loud, overly busy and showy and something of a distraction. Today he is far more integrated into the group’s sound and ethos and his idiosyncratic style has become a definite plus. He now plays with brushes more than sticks and his use of unusual percussive effects and devices now enhances rather than distracts. I thoroughly enjoyed his contribution here.

The Stenson trio are all about group interplay, three-way musical conversation and interaction. Stenson’s effortlessly flowing improvisatory style is perfectly offset by long term associate Jormin’s huge tone, dexterous finger work and dark, resonant bowing. Meanwhile the impish Falt takes a childlike delight in his unique drumming approach,  his unusual sounds and accents adding colour at every turn.

Stenson is sometimes referred to as “ECM’s house pianist” and certainly the trio’s albums fit into the label’s “chamber jazz” aesthetic. Live however Stenson reveals a far more playful side to his musical nature, alongside his obvious classical and folk influences there are times when he gets almost funky. Stenson clearly loves working with Falt, the two playing off each other all the time. The younger man has manifestly rejuvenated his leader.

The trio opened quietly with a stately rendition of “Seli” from the 2004 album “Goodbye”, recorded with Paul Motian at the drums.

Silvio Rodriguez’ dedication to Che Guevara “El Major” (I think) introduced a more playful element with Falt and Stenson hand clapping along with Jormin’s solo bass intro before the trio embarked on a typically labyrinthine but totally engrossing instrumental dialogue.

Jormin’s “M” from the new album “Cantando” introduced his broad, sonorous arco sound. Many jazz bassists use the bow very sparingly, usually at the conclusion of a number but Jormin is something of an arco specialist and one of the best practitioners of the art I have seen. Falt joined Jormin for a bass/percussion dialogue before Stenson subsequently performed a lengthy passage for solo piano before the theme of the piece was eventually introduced. This was to provide the framework for another Jormin solo, this time without the bow.

The final (unannounced) number of the first set was introduced by a solo drum passage from the remarkable Falt. Indeed the drums seemed to take the lead throughout the piece.

It had been a first half of excellent music with the group seemingly unphased by the case of the missing bass. The customary levels of telepathy were there, Jormin still sounded great on the borrowed instrument and Falt was a revelation. They seemed to be enjoying themselves too which boded well for the second set.

The second set included another Silvio Rodriguez tune, the lovely “Olivia” which opens the new “Cantando” album.

However the outstanding item was the trio’s version of Piazzolla’s “Chuiquilin De Bachin” which brought back that playful element and pushed the trio to previously uncharted energy levels. The lengthy introduction featured all three members of the trio playing a form of percussion with Jormin and Stenson utilising the bodies of their instruments. Stenson also plucked the strings of the piano like a zither as he duetted with Falt.

The courtly tones of Purcell’s “Music For A While” dating back to 1690 might appear to be a total contrast but this too provided the jumping off point for another remarkable exercise in group interaction.

This proved to be the last scheduled item but a sell out crowd of 140 or so called the trio back for an an unannounced encore but sadly the concert was over all too soon.

As I recall the last time I saw the trio they played for much longer than this but the incident with the bass may have forced them to curtail their set. Certainly Jormin used the bow more sparingly than previously. Even so the music we had seen was uniformly excellent and was delivered with remarkably good humour considering the travails the trio had suffered.

I’m pleased to report that the story has a happy ending. Jormin’s bass was subsequently found and flown to Birmingham on a later flight. The group were to collect it the following morning on their way to their next gig in Leeds. An extra hour on the journey is probably a small price to pay for the return of a priceless instrument.

Happily Jormin will have been reunited with his bass in time for the trio’s Manchester concert on October 25th. This has been recorded by the BBC and will be transmitted on Jazz On Three on Monday November 3rd at 11.15 p.m. The album “Cantando” is also highly recommended.

Finally congratulations to Alison Vermee and her team at The Edge for bringing an artist of Bobo Stenson’s stature to rural Shropshire. The concert even had to be moved into a larger hall to satisfy the demand for tickets and this worked very well with a knowledgeable, listening audience showing their appreciation. Following on from the remarkable concert by fellow ECM artists the Tord Gustavsen Trio last year this was another triumph.

The Edge’s innovative programme runs on into 2009 and hopefully can maintain this level of support. Forthcoming events include Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio, Finn Peters’ Quintet, Ivo Neame Quartet and a solo performance by award winning vocalist/pianist Lianne Carroll. See for full details.

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