Bath International Music Festival 2009
Few musicians have come to define more clearly than pianist Bobo Stenson the sound and language of European jazz – and yet, equally few European musicians have enjoyed the same rich experience as Stenson has of working with those whose playing has helped to shape the American model.
As a twenty-one year old, in 1965 Stenson made his first recording with fellow Swede, saxophonist Borje Fredriksson in a group that included the youngest of three major jazz brothers, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Subsequently, Stenson toured extensively with bassist Red Mitchell and then led a trio that in fairly quick succession accompanied saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz.
Falling in with composer, arranger and theorist George Russell and pocket trumpet pioneer Don Cherry in the 1970s further enriched Stenson’s perspective before, in 1988, he began an eleven year association with saxophonist Charles Lloyd that yielded five albums and won Stenson a long overdue following in the U.S.
All the while, of course, Stenson had been continuing to develop his reputation as a hugely resourceful and economically expressive pianist among the Scandinavian jazz community. In Sweden he is, rightly, a legend and the recipient of a Master of Jazz award, and across Europe, especially to those who have followed his near forty-year career with ECM Records, which includes the European jazz milestones Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere by the quartet he co-led with Jan Garbarek, he is revered as a true original.
Stenson grew up in Vasteras in a family where everyone played music. His father was an amateur bass player, his mother played piano, as did his sister, and his two brothers both played drums. Bobo began playing classical piano at the age of six but within a few years was introduced to jazz by his older brother, who would bring home albums by Miles Davis and George Shearing that Bobo was able to play along to. By the age of twelve, while keeping up his classical lessons, Bobo was playing in local jazz bands. Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland became his heroes in his teens until he heard John Coltrane and was immediately besotted.
He was still at school when Borje Fredriksson, just seven years older but already a leading light of Swedish jazz, heard him play and invited him to join his band. Stenson’s school work suffered – living in Vasteras, he had to borrow his parents’ car and drive into Stockholm to gigs, arriving back, exhausted, in the early hours – but his jazz education progressed in leaps and bounds as other offers of work came in. He played with trumpeter Lars Famloff and the major Swedish saxophone star of the time, Bernt Rosengren, and then after finishing his schooling and completing his national service, he formed his first trio.
In 1970, Stenson was invited to play in Oslo, where he met Jan Garbarek and formed the trio with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen that recorded his first album for ECM, Underwear, a year later. Witchi-Tai-To was meant to be the trio’s second album but after a jam session involving Stenson and Garbarek’s trio that produced a special energy still talked about with awe by those present, they decided to join forces. Keith Jarrett later borrowed the group – minus Stenson – for his Belonging period, during which Stenson joined Turkish drummer Okay Temiz’s Oriental Wind and continued the adventures of Rena Rama, a band he’d formed with saxophonist Lennart Aberg that followed Don Cherry’s lead into African, Balkan and Indian music and free jazz.
Having replaced Michel Petrucciani in Charles Lloyd’s group, in 1995 Stenson was invited also to work with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, recording the albums Matka Joanna, Leosia and Litania, and in 1996, with Serenity, he continued his series of trio albums for ECM, the most recent of which is the appropriately titled - since this is instrumental music that really sings - Cantando.
This concert can’t claim to be Stenson’s solo piano debut in the UK – the exact details of the first one are lost to history, although we know it took place in a pub on the shores of Loch Ness during a family holiday in the late 1950s when Bobo entertained the locals. But what can be said with certainty is that all of the above experience will be distilled into a recital where every note will resonate with meaning, shaping a whole guaranteed to be a thing of poise, clarity and great beauty.