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The Esbjorn Svensson Trio: Taking Five with E.S.T.

The Esbjorn Svensson Trio
The Esbjorn Svensson Trio (Photo: Lisa Thorson)

The Esbjorn Svensson Trio–aka E.S.T.–is huge in Europe, but the highly melodic and immediately accessible Swedish piano trio has had a harder time making a mark in the U.S. After a two-album stint with a pre-Bad Plus Columbia, the band was dropped with little fanfare or Stateside notice, even though overseas writers slobbered over the group like it was the second coming of the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio.

While E.S.T. continues to be huge across the pond–and still has Euro-jazz writers blowing them kisses in print–the trio has released its last two CDs, Seven Days of Falling and the new Viaticum, on New Jersey indie label 215 and is still trying to find a foothold here.

Svensson took a break from his busy touring schedule–and carrying the weight of being the savior of European jazz (I kid)–to answer five questions.

JT: Do you enjoy being consistently held up as the antithesis of American jazz, or has it become a bit tiring?

Svensson: I never really enjoyed this. I have always been very inspired by what I thought was “American jazz,” e.g. Teddy Wilson, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny just to mention a few. But if “American jazz” is only about Wynton Marsalis and what he claims what jazz is, then E.S.T. is definitely the antithesis to “American jazz.” The expression “jazz” to me is so limited in its meaning through all those things that have been said, that I do have big difficulties in considering what I do as jazz. In any case the fact that there is an ongoing discussion seems to prove that there is either a lack of meaning or a lack of development in the music that is typecast as “American jazz.”

JT: One American pianist told me, “European jazz is just one branch of the music that has its own sort of floaty, straight-eighth trajectory. Removing every last vestige of funk or blues from improvised music does not render it more ‘modern.'” What do you think of this statement? Accurate? Inaccurate? Somewhere in between?

Svensson: “European jazz” is much more than that. It is created by very individual musicians or bands each with a personal sound. Often it incorporates folk influences from the different regions, but also classical music–as this is also part of our heritage–and lately also ’70s pop, psychedelic, fusion and different club sounds. So to just generalize it in this way is foolish and tells more about that piano player than about “European jazz.”

JT: Over the years the trio has gradually moved away from the usual sort of jazz-related phrases and rhythms: your harmonies are simpler, the beats and melodies are repetitive and more informed by popular music and electronica than shifting jazz harmonies, melodies and swing rhythms. Has this change been organic? Or did you, as a band, get tired of playing in a typical jazz mode and find more artistic satisfaction playing highly melodic, advanced instrumental pop music with hints of jazz?

Svensson: I don’t agree: The harmonies are not simpler, just different. We are going where the music leads us, everything is still very spontaneous and improvised, although we have large segments that are composed and this especially makes it very interesting for us, as it takes the music to another level than just playing an eight-bar head and then going off on a 45-minute ego trip. We are trying to explore the music in all its depth and not be limited by what the “jazz” regulations might be. We are also working without a set list on live gigs, which keeps it very spontaneous and adventurous on the bandstand, so everything is in flow and we might be directing more toward classical music at the one moment, and then into bass ‘n’ drums the next. Besides, I don’t remember that we ever fitted the typical jazz mode.

JT: Do you see the trio as something closer to and more in the spirit of, say, Radiohead than the trio of Bill Charlap or Bill Evans?

Svensson: Why compare? Why not say Bill Evans and Radiohead at the same time. They both represent very good music, and I feel close to both. In terms of recording and presentation we are in the 21st century and I can’t and don’t want to pretend it is the ’40s–we are using whatever is there in studio technology as well as stage lighting, effects, fog machines etc. It is another level as well and allows us to experiment and create something new. We give music a lot of thought and take the time in the studio that it needs to develop it carefully. Therefore our recording sessions usually last for two consecutive weeks and then we listen to the rough mixes for another month, before we do the final mix and mastering. The one thing we are mostly concerned about is to develop the “E.S.T. sound,” and we hope that it is original enough to differ us enough from other groups.

JT: Each name three CDs that you love.

Esbjorn Svensson (piano)

Keith Jarrett, Facing You (ECM). When I first listened to this album I was 16 years old. Keith opened a door to a new room; I went in and have not come out yet.

Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations (Columbia Masterworks). This music by Bach is a perfect balance of heart and brain, and the performance by Gould is wonderful.

Jan Johansson, Jazz pa Svenska (Megafon). This is the perfect mix of jazz and Swedish folk music, performed by one of the most touching pianists I have ever heard.

Magnus Ostrom (drums)

Acoustic Ladyland, Last Chance Disco (Babel) and Polar Bear, Held on the Tips of Fingers (Babel). [These groups share three members] I saw them live recently and their music really felt honest and it said something to me. Great energy–great guys! Great beer we had together!

Giant Sand, Is All Over the Map (Thrill Jockey). What can you say about Howe Gelb? I think he is a genius!

Scout Niblett, I Am (Secretly Canadian). Other people might disagree, but it doesn’t matter. I love it!

Dan Berglund (bass)

Black Sabbath, We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll (Warner Bros.). I listened first to this album when I was about 12 years old, and it scared the hell out of me.

Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia). This is beautiful rock at its best.

Radiohead, OK Computer (Capitol). Still one of the best pop and rock albums. Originally Published