May 29, 2024

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CD review: Bobo Stenson Trio – Sphere – 2023: Video, CD cover

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.

Bobo Stenson has earned the right to rest, even sleep, on his laurels. That’s essentially what he did with his last record with the Trio — Anders Jormin on bass and Jon Falt on drums — Contra La Indecision from 2018, which offered an enriching backward look at the many deeps and hollows of Stenson’s distinctive career. Active since the early 1970s, Stenson has worked with jazz luminaries as diverse and unruly as Stan Getz, Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, George Russell and Jan Garbarek, and has absorbed something from all of them. Indeed, just drawing on the material from his past would be enough for several more satisfying records.

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).

But this is hardly an attempt at the staid confines of the concert hall. Sphere is unquestionably a jazz record, though one with its own concerns and departures. Percussion — the way tones can vibrate and how those vibrations can resonate — seems to be a particular focus, both from drummer Falt and Stenson himself: Falt emphasizes the metallic facets of his kit, and unleashes an arsenal of rusty creaks, ringing drones and resonant pops throughout. Stenson often plays against Falt’s crystalline frigidity, laying down thoughtful melodic lines that burn low but steady, like an ice fisherman’s fire on a vast, frozen lake. Bassist Jormin pitches himself between Stenson’s subdued radiance and Falt’s syncopated chill, playing a ruminative, rumbling pizzicato that grounds and extends the group’s playing, particularly when he drops in halfway through the lyrically pagan “Communion Psalm,” or his intricate solo on the vibrant, freewheeling “Ky and Beautiful Madame Ky,” inspired by Norwegian composer Alfred Janson.

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.

It’s hard to pick a standout track, as Sphere has a unifying glow that fuses the songs, even with their disparate sources and differing preoccupations, into an almost uncannily streamlined whole, like a Richard Serra sculpture, torqued, twisted, but somehow stubbornly inviolate. Two versions of Norgard’s “Tree” open and close the album, the brief reverent simplicity of the original unpacked and examined, revealing a sense of unknowable mystery that complicates the hymn’s tranquil assurance. Humans can plant trees, but parts of nature, both outer and inner, will always be just beyond our control or understanding.

Much of the focus on Sphere seems to be on the natural world, specifically the cold northern coasts of Stenson’s native Scandinavia. “Spring” and “Kingdom of Coldness” have kind of a Greenland/Iceland thing happening, with “Spring” exuding a lunar frost that may or may not just be beginning to thaw, while “Kingdom” has the momentum, provided in large part by a rare bowed bass from Jormin and translucent playing from Stenson, of a world waking, of energies and appetites long dammed up finally breaking loose.

Sphere is not just interested in the meteorological or in evoking wintry sonic landscapes – it’s an exploration of nature — and music — as a series of processes and cycles, something scientific but also numinous, understood in part but also, at some final level, deeply miraculous. The orb of the album’s title could refer to Earth, but it might also point to the Sphere’s self-contained state, its closed-system concentration. To call it a snow globe might be too precious; the Stenson Trio is not working in miniature here. But their panoramic perspective combined with their careful attention to precise dynamics could be described as a biodome, a self-sustaining environment that creates its own atmosphere.

With Sphere the Bobo Stenson Trio have used their experience — with each other and with life, to create a work of remarkable depth and vision — a collection of sounds and ideas that make their own world while commenting on ours, music that builds on the past even as the present transmutes the past beyond recognition. It’s a reminder that, even at this late point in cultural, environmental and political disenchantment, undiscovered country can still be located, if we have the ears to find it.

Stenson has long been a top-class performer and recording artist, in all sorts of contexts. For years now, he and his Swedish compatriots Anders Jormin (b) and Jon Fält (d) have been developing something really special, based on a blend of original material (largely contributed by Jormin) and a subtle, jazz-inflected refiguring of the poetics of the classical world.

While Stenson can groove and burn with the best – exemplified by his work on Witchi-Tai-To, the album he cut in 1973 with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen – the discipline of classical music has long meant much to him. In his early 20s Stenson studied with the German refugee and classical composer Werner Wolf Glaser (1910-2006) and in recent times, that side of things has surfaced increasingly in his art.

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