|AMG Review by Thom Jurek (4 1/2):
Over its last two albums, Reflections (ECM 1516) and War Orphans (ECM 1604), the Bobo Stenson Trio has enveloped itself in a study of chromatic lyricism and modal architecture that balances the three traditional jazz elements for alchemy — rhythm, harmony, and melody — the organization of space within the composition. On Serenity — the group's most ambitious project to date and Stenson's ever — the Bobo Stenson Trio (Bobo Stenson, piano; Anders Jormin, bass; Jon Christensen, drums) has taken the results of its earlier explorations along this line and transformed them into an entirely new kind of spontaneous compositional terrain, one that holds balance for the space between players rather than on individual contributions of sound. The fact that this methodological apparatus has worked lyrically with adherence to Western scale and melodic invention is a surprise; that it has deepened over time as the band's communication and sense of adventure develops is a wonder. Over two CDs, Stenson proves his trio is capable of realizing spatial improvisation in the context of not only their own compositions and improvisations, but within the constructs of composers such as Wayne Shorter ("Sweet Pea"), Hanns Eisler ("Der Flaumenbaum"), Alban Berg ("Die Nachtigall"), Silvio Rodriguez ("EL Mayor") — a Stenson favorite — and Lorens Brolen, whose two-part "Polska of Despair" unites each of the CDs in the package and the recording date as a whole. Given the track record of Stenson and Jormin to compose or invent the kind of musico-linguistic symbolism necessary for this kind of improvising, it is perhaps more useful to look outside the quartet into some of these other compositions to see how their method of performance can reconcile Charles Ives, Berg, Eisler, and Wayne Shorter to one another while not betraying any hint of the composer's or trio's original intention, that a music as ethereal and strikingly crystalline and beautiful such as Stenson's can hold within it the apparent contradictions of atonalism, serialism, and vanguard humor (Ives). On Bolen's "Polska of Despair II," which appears on the first disc, Stenson and Jormin call the melody up with triads and fourths, as Christensen dances between them. On the third measure the melody introduces itself between triads, and other chords enter the space between the three members. Jormin moves to build upon those chords a minimal architecture of harmony and rhythm that is fed back to Stenson, who spaces out an even greater number of chords, all played in triad form, tossing out all sorts of rhythmic possibilities to Christensen, who moves away from his brushes and onto his sticks just as the chords disappear in a glimmer and single-note runs begin to appear from both piano and bass. The entire tune is open now, so chords both plucked and played can enter into a dialogue with one another and offer tonal sonances as a communicative gift to a drummer who contains all of it by moving forward into the next measure and stripping the seam for small arpeggios, and flatted sevenths tonally engage with other chords, and melody seeps through over the tonal structure of the improvisation. On Shorter's "Sweet Pea," percussion leads the way in; restrained, almost silent rhythmic patterns and polyrhythms introduce themselves via the drums, cymbals, the body of the bass, and the wooden top of the piano. It's the sound of a clock double-timing and reversing itself. As it gradually winds down, bass and then piano enter, creating a chromatic interval that stretches seemingly forever though it's only a minute or so. The harmony is the melody in Shorter's tune so chords and scalar invention go hand in hand in a restrained dynamic range gushing over only once or twice. The group's improvisations are stunningly original as well. "Fader V" by Stenson is a shimmering study in microtonal improvisation and space from the inside of the piano until it logically leads out via Christensen's tomtoms and two open E lines from Jormin. Without fail, the deep lyrical song at the root of Stenson's style and this trio's heart carries it out over the piano and into a space that is forever widening around the skeins of notes and chords. On Berg's "Die Nachtigall," the trio reveals the hidden melodic nature of serialism via timbral exploration and tempered tonal extension. Simply put, there are no records like the Stenson Trio's Serenity. The band has outdone themselves by their slow, careful development over three records and has become one of the premier rhythm trios on the planet. Serenity is not only the group's coup de grace, but also a jazz masterpiece of the highest order.