est, Colston Hall, Bristol

Altogether now: let's go our separate ways!
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The Independent Culture

The lower-case Swedish piano trio est (Esbjorn Svensson Trio, geddit?) has carved out an enviable niche in the European jazz market by making improvisation relatively painless for audiences and musicians alike. Over a longish series of albums for the German ACT label, the group has perfected a lightly chilled, intensely textured style where the constituent parts of piano, double bass and drums work together rather than separately, with each individual content to serve the greater collective goal of the ensemble.

The lower-case Swedish piano trio est (Esbjorn Svensson Trio, geddit?) has carved out an enviable niche in the European jazz market by making improvisation relatively painless for audiences and musicians alike. Over a longish series of albums for the German ACT label, the group has perfected a lightly chilled, intensely textured style where the constituent parts of piano, double bass and drums work together rather than separately, with each individual content to serve the greater collective goal of the ensemble.

Fussy solos are kept to a minimum and there's a satisfyingly functional air to proceedings, emphasised by the group's melodic, faintly melancholy, grooves. It's an approach that also fulfils an honourable and historical jazz function. Like the popular trios of George Shearing, Dudley Moore and Jacques Loussier before them, est make relaxing music with plenty of space for the imagination of the listener to roam in. But what's really great is when the communication between the players allows them to punch above their weight. Then, you're reminded of the best piano trios ever: Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett.

Well, that's the theory. But what about the practice? On a major tour of larger halls, est appeared to have some worrying problems. In Bristol, it all started happily enough, with video images of scudding clouds forming a background to the opening number, another lightly chilled groove. Except the groove didn't last very long before giving way to a longish piano solo by Svensson. His solo didn't seem to be going anywhere, either. But, what the hell, it was only the first number.

Then the second and third numbers didn't appear to go anywhere either. Searching for a distraction, one began to notice other disturbing signs: the fact that the excellent drummer Magnus Ostrom's normally modest kit had apparently sprouted several add-ons; that the physical distance between the three players - whose close proximity on stage was an essential part of the group's identity - had grown considerably larger; that Svensson and bassist Dan Berglund didn't appear to be looking at each other very much. More solos followed: drum solos, bass solos, piano solos.

But worst of all was the sound of Svensson's Steinway. Even Liberace or Richard Clayderman, one felt, might have considered the over-bright amplification a tad vulgar. With other, less meticulously designed bands, this could have been an unfortunate error. With est, who credit their own sound and lighting engineers as members of the group, and announce them from the stage at the end of the show, there could be no mistakes: this was how they wanted the piano to sound. To add insult to injury, the video-projections got worse, too, like some Stockholm 14 year-old's Media project.

Of course, it may just have been a bad gig from a tired-out band. But in trying to pump up a nice intimate trio to suit larger stages, and attempting to replace ensemble-based grooves with Keith Jarrett Trio-style virtuosity, est are in danger of losing touch with what made them worth seeing in the first place.

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