CONCERT REVIEW Esbjörn in the U.S.
Trio Totally Transcends
Scullers Jazz Club
Sept. 26, 2007
I’m already late for the first set. Facing the whitewashed double doors of Scullers Jazz Club, I ease one open and slip inside.
Upright bass solo. I grab the nearest seat while Dan Berglund evokes the voice of a soft-spoken woman from his instrument. I’m sitting in the worst seat in the house — behind a large ceiling support pole (every club’s got at least one). I can’t see Dan, but I’m so absorbed already. Fast runs down the high strings are nestled in between long sustained notes down low. Seamlessly, he switches between his fingers and his bow, carefully selecting which intervals warrant the slight pluck of his index and thumb and which do not. Esbjörn Svenson (piano) and Magnus Oström (drums), the only two members of the band I can actually see, sit still and patiently as Berglund continues through his solo.
After another handful of measures, Oström emerges with polyrhythms ensconced within the sporadic bass notes. Svenson breaks his solemn pose with a jerk of the left hand. In one climatic sweep, the band comes together and navigates through the piece tightly. The song concludes in one large hit on the downbeat, and the crowd applauds immediately afterwards. Before Svenson stands up to banter with the audience, I run to an open seat near the front row, right in front of Oström’s kit, and remain there through the end of the show.
“E.S.T. is not jazz. We’re not bebop nor swing. We’re inspired by rock and roll, classical, and jazz music. But then again what is jazz?” Svenson made his claim looking me straight in the eyes, sitting across from me at a round table twenty minutes after the crowd had dispersed. It was hard to get him to sit down, what with the whole audience lining up to shake his hand. One woman wouldn’t let go of his grip, reiterating that “[his] music was transcendent.” The members of E.S.T., whom all speak and understand English extremely well, in addition to their native Swedish tongue, smiled humbly and agreed to sign CDs.
I probed Svenson once again to reveal to me the meaning of genres in music. He was more certain this time around: “If jazz is improvising, then yes, E.S.T. is jazz.” True, E.S.T. may be difficult to classify — their instrumentation almost pigeon-holes them as a “jazz trio” — but their 2003 album Seven Days of Falling debuted on the Pop charts in three different European countries. Furthermore, just take a look at the demographic of a typical E.S.T. audience: jazz students, white-collar Monk fans, and electronica junkies.
It’s E.S.T.’s expansive landscaping of the sonic space that has gained them such a fan base. Not only do they pay homage to the late greats of jazz and swing, but they enhance their live show with clever uses of natural and digital effects. Seated in front of the drum kit, I marveled at the selection of pedals skirting Oström’s feet. Many of his drums were fitted with acoustic triggers, each routed to one of six pedals and then to a small mixer. In the middle of the second set, Oström resorted to tapping the snare with his knuckles, while modulating the pedals with his other hand and his feet. The sounds achieved weren’t gimmicky or forced in any way — they were just simply a reinforcement of the acoustic and natural possibilities of the snare.
So would E.S.T. play a straight acoustic show, with no electronics? Svenson’s eyes drifted upwards, recalling a recent memory. He crossed his legs and replied, “Well yeah — this tour we were late for our show in Germany. We didn’t have time to set up the sound. We played a set completely acoustic, no effects.” He later added that the effects are merely a “complement to the acoustic trio. It’s about finding new sounds.” At this point Berglund and Oström joined us, placing themselves at an adjacent table. I was curious to find out when they started using effects. “Around 1993. Dan was the first to use a distortion pedal.”
In addition to Dan’s distortion pedals and Oström’s delay units, Svenson captures his piano playing through two condenser mics, which run into a Line 6 Pod. He primarily uses the unit for amplifier modeling and subtle backing support to his chord arrangements. Svenson likened using the Pod to “adding a little perfume” to the music. What struck me most, though, was Svenson’s daring move to play the piano while running a glass guitar slide over the piano strings. “I think I once saw Keith Jarrett do it. Or maybe heard of him doing it. Or maybe I just started doing it.” His inspiration might be unclear, but the sound is ambitious nonetheless.
The E.S.T. live experience, as is the case with most bands who improvise, is riddled with surprises. A personal highlight for me during the second set was a stellar, almost 11-minute, performance of the song “Mingle in the Mincing Machine.” The set opened with a title from the new album, Tuesday Wonderland, which included an improvised ambient section towards the end. Somewhere in the middle of the ambience and structured noise, Berglund’s bass could be heard pulsating in and out of the opening to “Mingle.” I immediately recognized it and started cheering. With no delay, the whole band plowed through the song.
You’re average trio doesn’t contain such freedom and equality amongst its members. Most piano trios, especially ones named after the piano player himself, are solely directed by the keys. However, E.S.T. operates differently. “If Dan wants to do a song, Dan does a song. We follow. He has that kind of authority in the band,” said Svenson. Though it’s his trio and he composes the music, it’s truly a collaborative.
The experience of a spectacular live show, followed by an extremely comfortable and enlightening conversation with the band afterwards indicates to me that this is a group who truly cares about music. Their attention to the full breadth of their catalog (the second set contained only one new track), coupled with their desire to challenge each other sonically, invites listeners to enjoy what could quite possibly be the strongest working relationship in contemporary music today. While their music subverts all the recipes and formulas of pop music in the current era, E.S.T. continues to gain international renown. As Svenson himself put it, with every ounce of humility, “everyone always wants to hear [jazz] standards — but I think good old music will survive.”