…You’ll enjoy this.

ECM 2775 / 487 3808

Bobo Stenson (piano); Anders Jormin (double bass); Jon Fält (drums)

Recorded April 2022

I’ve just listened to this album for the third time – this time with headphones – and I keep on finding new layers. The first time I listened I thought to myself – OK, it’s Bobo Stenson again. If you weren’t paying attention you could mistake him for a down-beat Keith Jarret, or an up-beat Fred Hersch. But after you’ve listened a bit you come to the conclusion that he only sounds like Bobo Stenson, and that’s rather good.

Whether you first heard him playing in the 70s with Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, or in the 90s with Charles Lloyd, or in the 2000s with his current trio (Anders Jormin on bass and drummer Jon Fält), there’s a consistent delicacy and musicality to his playing which shines through – whether he’s being far out or lyrical.

Sphere is the trio’s most recent outing on ECM, following on from the earlier projects Cantando (2008), Indicum (2012) and the Grammy nominated Contra La Indecisión (2018), and as in Cantando, it includes tunes based on work by classical and contemporary Scandinavian composers like Sven-Erik Bäck, Alfred Janson and even the late romantic Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, as well as jazz improvisations.

The first of the nine tracks “You shall plant a tree” draws on a hymn-like theme by the Danish classical composer Per Norgård. This is gently developed through a sequence of inversions and progressions on the piano which are then picked up by the other members of the trio – the whole building a sense of cooperation and shared making, with no sense of standout solos begging for applause (a mood that characterises the whole album). Track 2, “Unquestioned answer – Charles Ives in memoriam” is a kind of homage to the modernist US composer who died in 1954.

It draws on some of the atonal and aleatory aspects of Ive’s own compositions (check the great ECM recording of Ive’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano), with Fält’s drumming providing a soundscape against which piano and bass can carry the listener into unfamiliar territory. Sven-Erik Bäck’s “Spring”, the third track, is a gentle reverie which segues into Anders Jormin’s “Kingdom of coldness” (the longest piece on the album).

This starts with an insistent bowed bass which gives way to a lovely 4/4 dance in which all three players carry a lilting theme through to a calm conclusion. Bäck’s “Communion Psalm” occupies a similar territory, bringing to mind the way in which Tord Gustavsen can strip a tune down to its essence and still leave a sense of beauty. The crescendo is arrived at without you realising how much the music has been building. Track 7, “The red flower” (a tune by the young Korean Jung-Hee Woo) takes a different direction and swings very happily down a musical summer road – it’s understated, but such a cheerful thing with Jormin’s bass making sure that the mood stays upbeat.

“Ky and beautiful madame Ky” starts with a complex pattern of brushed percussion that sets the scene for a meditative reworking of a theme by Alfred Janson. It is typical of the way in which something that has been composed is then transformed into jazz by the trio’s ability to build on a decade or more of shared improvisation.

Something similar happens in “Valsette op 40/1” where the deceptively simple 3/4 waltz tune of the Sibelius’ original is refracted and remade in the bass and percussion intro until the trio arrive at a Stenson’s final restatement of the theme. And then the circle is complete as the variation on “You shall plant a tree” draws everything to a close.

When talking about the Trio’s process on the ECM website, Stenson has commented: “We don’t have a way of playing ‘ready-made’. Things crystallise in the moment and we adjust to that. And that’s the quintessence. That’s the joy of playing together, to never do the same thing twice and to be determined about that.” Sphere is a perfect example of how fruitful this approach can be.

If you like your jazz quiet and meditative, and if you enjoy improvisation which is based on a profound knowledge of, and affection for, a musical heritage, you’ll enjoy this.

Reviewed by Chris Tribble