Sphere is another beautiful album by the 78-year-old Swedish pianist and composer Bobo Stenson who, with a unique style, brings his trio to new heights.
The musicians involved in the project are Anders Jormin, a poetic bassist who has been accompanying him since the mid ‘80s, and Jon Fält, a sensitive drummer who first joined them in 2008 for the album Cantando (ECM).
Per Nørgård’s “You Shall Plant a Tree” opens and closes the album with two different versions, immersing us in a vast sea of tranquility and deep feelings. The second track, “Unquestioned Answer”, is in memory of the modernist American composer Charles Ives, taking the same title as one of his unusual musical works. It’s a spacious Stenson piece shrouded in mystery and restraint where the trio explores emotional atmospheres with occasional abstract scraps and loose threads.
The rubato dramatics of “Spring”, a classical composition by Sven-Erik Bäck, contrast with the palpable terrain offered by “Kingdom of Coldness”, one of the most bewitching cuts on the album. The latter was penned by Jormin, who makes a good use of the arco to define a circular ostinato; Fält creates an irregular stream through hair-raising cymbal scratches and brushed skins; and Stenson is as lucid and sensitive as ever in his melodic candor.
Stenson, who played with legendary saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Jan Garbarek as well as with trumpeters Don Cherry and Tomasz Stanko, doesn’t hide the classical intonation on Bäck’s “Communion Psalm”, touching our souls with an introspective sense of freedom. His superlative melodies are even more intense on the exquisite “The Red Flower”, on which the bassist and the drummer build a subtle, stably rooted foundation.
The immense beauty of Sibelius’ “Valsette Op 40 No. 1” is possible due to the extraordinary cohesiveness of a one-of-a-kind trio that knows how to navigate spaces with both tantalizing vagueness and conscious direction. Virtuosity lives here with no need to show it off.
For the best part of five decades, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has led his eponymous trio in many forms, his relationship with ECM Records and label boss Manfred Eicher stretching all the way back to 1971 with his debut album Underwear, recorded with the rhythm section of bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen. It’s this long-standing trio with which Stenson’s name is often synonymous, and it’s with the current iteration – featuring bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Fält since 2008’s Cantando – that his new album Sphere, is captured.
An active musician since the 1960s, by the 1970s Stenson entered a fairly prolific period in his career, and although he only released one album of his own – the aforementioned Underwear – by the early ‘80s he began recording his own music more regularly (albeit ‘regularly’ for Stenson is about once every 6-7 years). Earlier releases in Stenson’s career include a short string of albums with saxophonist Jan Garbarek – including the excellent Witchi-Tai-To – as well as with the Swedish jazz band Rena Rama, while by the 1990s you could find him on the bandstand with Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stańko, and he was also a close collaborator of Don Cherry during the trumpeter’s tenure in Scandinavia.
The originals are few and far between on this one, save for two by Jormin – ‘Kingdom of Coldness’ and ‘Unquestioned Answer’, the latter of which serves as a tribute to the composer Charles Ives. The rest of the pieces, interestingly, are interpretations of various Scandinavian composers in a fittingly ‘Nordic tone’ style. While Stenson et al. keep things within this tradition of quiet, sparse ECM piano trios, things get a little more spirited at points with tunes like ‘Ky and Beautiful Madame Ky’ with its challenging rhythmic pulse – Fält mostly steers clear of the kick pedal on this record but provides some beat-based intrigue regardless – while the loose interpretation of Sibelius’ ‘Valsette op. 40/1’ rises to a steady climax that tests the dynamic limits of the trio.
Bobo remarks that as a trio “We don’t have a way of playing ‘ready-made’. Things crystallise in the moment and we adjust to that”; Sphere has that down to a T, and despite the airy nature of Stenson and co.’s interpretations the trio are surprisingly locked-in, the listener never lost. Like many of these ECM piano trio albums, Sphere merits patience and close listening, rewarding mindful listeners.