Esbjörn Svensson Trio: e.s.t. live in London (ACT)

Review of album by the late pianist and his trio

e.s.t. live in london

Cover of Esbjörn Svensson Trio album e.s.t. live in London

The Esbjörn Svensson Trio was the Bad Plus of Europe, drawing a new generation of listeners to jazz. As practiced by e.s.t. and TBP—bands famous enough among the young to be known by their initials—jazz is not exclusively art for graying cognoscenti. It can be like rock or pop: more fun, less work.

The 17-year trajectory of e.s.t. ended with a crash in 2008, when Svensson died at 44 in a scuba-diving accident. This two-CD set, only the third posthumous e.s.t. release, was recorded live at London’s Barbican Centre in 2005, at the height of the band’s popularity. It presents a polished, adept ensemble with a focused sense of their own identity. They played two kinds of music: moody ballads based on Svensson’s simple, sweet, vaguely familiar melodies (“In the Tail of Her Eye,” “Viaticum”) and groove tunes (“Mingle in the Mincing-Machine”). The grooves usually got into the ballads, too.

Svensson always knew where to find the pretty notes on the piano. He could conjure a rapt, idealized atmosphere of lyricism, and he always, eventually, improvised. His ideas were nice but limited in number, so he kept recycling them. On “Believe, Beleft, Below,” he stays with minimal recurrent avowals of serenity for nine minutes. Bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström could generate hypnotic rhythms and, like Svensson, were not afraid of repetition—in fact, they relied on it. An 18-minute ambient exercise like “Behind the Yashmak” accepts the risk that audience members with critical listening skills may check out. Most of their fans begged for more.

If e.s.t. were popularizers, their quality standards were high. Their success, like TBP’s, was based on an awareness that jazz musicians need not flee, but can profitably embrace, their obligations as entertainers.

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