Esbjörn Svensson looms among the most influential and innovative figures in contemporary jazz: Video


16.04. – Happy Birthday !!! Pianist and composer Esbjörn Svensson looms among the most influential and innovative figures in contemporary jazz, drawing on inspirations spanning from Baroque to techno to create a body of work that earned both commercial and critical approval.

Svensson was born in Västeras, Sweden, on 1964 – his mother was a classical pianist and his father a die-hard jazz buff, but in spite of his classical training he first gravitated toward pop, playing in a series of amateur rock & roll bands alongside high-school classmate and drummer Magnus Öström. After studying music at Stockholm’s Kungliga Musikhögskolan, Svensson worked as a session player, and in 1985 formed a bop-inspired duo with drummer Fredrik Norén. In 1993, he reconnected with Öström, and together with bassist Dan Berglund they formed the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, which would become universally known by the acronym E.S.T. Although the group’s debut LP, When Everyone Has Gone, earned scant attention, the trio quickly emerged as a fixture of the Swedish festival circuit in addition to backing singers including Viktoria Tolstoy and Louise Hoffsten — while Svensson’s piano balanced the structural complexity of his classical background with the improvisational daring of postwar influences like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, Öström’s powerhouse drumming channeled more mainstream influences like rock and funk, and in time E.S.T. earned a fan following that extended far beyond the confines of the conventional jazz cognoscenti.

Esbjörn Svensson Trio Plays Monk With 1996’s Esbjörn Svensson Trio Plays Monk, critics roundly applauded Svensson’s fearless interpretive sensibilities. A year later, the intimate Winter in Venice earned the trio the Swedish Grammy for Best Jazz Album, and for 1999’s From Gagarin’s Point of View the band signed an international licensing deal with German label ACT, for the first time winning significant notice outside of Scandinavia. By the 2002 release of Strange Place for Snow, E.S.T. were firmly established as Europe’s most popular jazz group, regularly headlining large concert halls across the Continent. They also played dozens of pop music festivals, incorporating film projections, lighting, and set design into their stage act to further shatter genre preconceptions.

In conjunction with the 2003 LP Seven Days of Falling, E.S.T. won the International Artist Award at the BBC Jazz Awards, and following the 2006 release of Tuesday Wonderland, the trio was the first European act ever to adorn the cover of the venerable American jazz magazine Down Beat. In early 2008, E.S.T. reconvened in the studio to record Leucocyte, a project integrating electronic and processed sounds within the jazz trio format.

With the album completed, Svensson went scuba diving off the coast of the Swedish island community Ingarö – on June 14, 2008, his companions found him lying unconscious on the seabed, and although his body was rushed by helicopter to Karolinska University Hospital, attempts at resuscitation proved unsuccessful. Svensson was just 44 years old.

From Swedish small-town obscurity in the mid-1990s, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (known universally as EST) became a box-office smash everywhere – even in the US, that most resistant of marketplaces for jazz imports. Svensson was regularly told by new fans that they did not know they could enjoy jazz until they heard his – but if he had an appeal for Radiohead listeners, he kept the hardline jazz audience with him as well. He and his EST partners for 15 years, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, achieved this through their infectious three-way empathy, and Svensson’s knack for composing hauntingly memorable themes.

As with the guitarist Metheny, EST tunes always sound like wordless songs. “The only questions I ask myself while composing,” Svensson told me in 2002, “are ‘do we have enough here for a story? Is there a nice journey going on here, are we avoiding repeating ourselves?’ That’s what I ask myself. Not ‘what kind of music is this?’ ”

Svensson’s eclecticism was not calculating, however, rather it was the enthusiasm of a piano obsessive who had started out in a rock duo with his childhood drummer friend Ostrom, and ended up a Glenn Gould fan. He was unabashed about borrowing the light-shows, smoke effects and electronics of the rock and pop worlds and was a master of the grandiloquent set-piece climax.

Yet a good two-thirds of any EST gig would always mingle a classical chamber-group’s acoustic delicacy with full-on jazz improv that could win over an audience more used to the work of Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, or even Thelonious Monk. It was a fizzing Monk-oriented set (with a little Ornette Coleman woven in) that Svensson played when he first came to London in February 1999. Soon replacing covers with all-original material, the band went on to win several Swedish Grammies, acclaim from the BBC (best international act at the British Jazz Awards, 2003), MIDEM (revelation of the festival, also 2003), and awards from France’s Jazzman magazine, among many other accolades. Through it all, the modest and totally music-focused Svensson trio behaved in interviews like the slightly bashful long-time mates they were. Sometimes they seemed to be half-expecting to discover it had all been a mistake.

Svensson was born at Skultuna, a tiny village near Vasteras, 60 miles west of Stockholm. His father was a jazz fan, his mother an amateur classical pianist who taught him the chords to Long Tall Sally and Blue Suede Shoes. The young Svensson liked Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa before he discovered Monk, Chick Corea or Jarrett via his father’s record collection; his cousin played drums in a local group knocking out 1950s rock’n’roll hits. Svensson’s schoolfriend Ostrom was a willing participant in the same idea and the duo’s first drum-kit was built from old paint-cans discarded by Ostrom’s father.

Svensson later attended Stockholm’s conservatoire, the Kungliga Musikhögskolan, and though the pianist concentrated on pop and studio work when he graduated, he also played bebop from 1985 to 1988 with drummer Fredrik Norén. But he never lost touch with Ostrom, and by 1993 the two had also discovered bass guitarist Berglund and begun to work on a jazz repertoire that drew on both the classic approach of the acoustic jazz piano trio (particularly Jarrett’s) and the hooks, dramatic build-ups, rhythmic drive and clear thematic statements of rock and pop. The group played every Swedish festival it could find in those early years, and also worked with singers including Viktoria Tolstoy and Louise Hoffsten. With the Trio Plays Monk album in 1996, Svensson reinvented the great composer’s familiar themes with startling relish, often powered by Ostrom’s bold use of funk and marching-band rhythms. The ensemble’s conversational style was honed by the time of the next two releases, Winter in Venice, and From Gagarin’s Point of View, in 1997 and 1998, by which time the band was recording for Germany’s ACT label.

A sensational appearance at the 1999 Montreux Jazz Festival was followed by the sale of several thousand copies of the album Good Morning Susie Soho, and EST became a first-choice festival booking not only in Europe, but the far east and finally the US.

Svensson, a modest and courteous man, was often asked how long the same line-up (a rarity in the itinerant and economically unstable jazz world) could hold together and continue to produce fresh work. He would answer that he knew an EST track once he had written it, but could not think of what the formula might be beforehand. “We have to develop without knowing how,” he said.

He is survived by his wife Eva and by sons Ruben and Noah.
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