Bobo Stenson is a unique and quietly influential figure. The Swedish pianist’s many sideman gigs with horn players have included Jan Garbarek on some of the earliest ECM recordings and a series of Charles Lloyd releases. His distinctive, poetic sound and viscerally rhythmic touch have most often been heard in recent years in the context of his own, telepathically sympathetic trio . His partnership with serial collaborator Martin Speake however, is an enduring one and he’s been coming to UK for short tours at regular, if not frequent intervals since their first hook-up, which led to an ECM recording with Paul Motion on drums finally released a decade ago now. The first gig on the current tour at Colston Hall’s Lantern was a thrilling demonstration of what is special about their collaboration.
The quartet was completed by Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums and not only was it the first gig of the tour, but also the first time the four had performed together. It meant one of the pleasures of the evening was watching the band begin to breathe together. Early in the first set a Speake original, with a simple pretty tune, provided a platform for Stenson to develop a fiercely driving solo and by the time they band were vamping out over the theme, Chaplin and Stenson were locked together with a little rhythmic kick they appeared to find together. In the second set, Folk Song for Paul featured an extended introduction from the piano, the rhythmic pulse of the theme seeming just to condense from the atmosphere and a quintessential Stenson solo followed, full of rippling, melodic lines, hesitations and distortions of the time. James Maddren seemed to be inside his mind by this point, following every feint and flurry.
The gig had been billed as the quartet playing music from the ECM release Change of Heart. It was nothing of the sort of course. Speake’s prolific composing output and insatiable musical curiosity meant that we were treated to a mixture of his finely crafted, frequently yearning and reflective compositions, a tune of literally medieval provencance, arrangements of a Puccini theme (O mio babbino caro) and a Frederico Mompou compostion (Cancon is danse No. 6). A dip into Charlie Parker’s oeuvre had Bobo deconstructing Be-bop on Charlie’s Wig and they closed on a wryly understated reading of Some Enchanted Evening.
Speake’s own sound has a distilled quality to it, crystal clear and solos developing extended ideas and occasionally erupting into passionate flurries and squeals of emotion. Chaplin and Maddren may have been less to the fore in this gig, but they had their moments in the spotlight and the responsiveness of the band to each other breathed vital life into the set.
The expression of pleasure and joy through a slightly melancholy tinged reflectiveness is sometimes characterised as typically nordic, Swedish ‘vemod’. To my ears, there is something of this in Speake’s music. Its better expressed through music than words (perhaps illustrated by the last sentence!) and was threaded through this performance. Who better to play this with him than the Swedish master. I left uplifted and just a bit inspired.
They are on the second of a two night residency at London’s Vortex tonight, not to be missed if you are nearby.