The Esbjorn Svensson Trio, or EST as they like to be known these days, do to the jazz piano trio what James Joyce did to coming-of-age tales by cutting up the form and starting afresh.
This acclaimed Swedish group have been a hit on the European scene for a while now. In 2000, the German news weekly Der Spiegel hailed Svensson as "the future of the jazz piano", and since then his trio have consolidated their position as one of the top bands on the circuit. They are currently more popular than most big American jazz names.
Attracting the kind of following EST enjoy prompts accusations - often well founded - of dumbing down. But Svensson is one of those rare musicians who dispenses the common touch without compromising his art. He avoids the usual jazz musician's stock-in-trade of cramming as many notes as he can into the square inch, instead favouring innovative silences and a darkly intense lyricism that allows his emotional honesty to show through.
Although he once dabbled among the magical spells of the pianist Keith Jarrett's Belonging period, the new spirit Svensson has come up with is shorn of Jarrett's angst and the feeling that a good thing has been taken to wearying extremes. Featured were several tunes from EST's current album, Viaticum (which went gold in France and platinum in Germany), including "Tide of Trepidation", "Eighty-eight Days In My Veins" and the title track.
The suave use of lighting underlined the shifting moods of EST's music while their careful use of dynamics, unusual in jazz, which usually opts for fast-equals-loud, slow-equals-soft, made Svensson's lyrical intensity stand out in sharp relief. Yet the non-conformist Dan Berglund likes Jimi Hendrix and Richie Blackmore (of Deep Purple) and is not afraid to use a wah-wah pedal or feedback with his acoustic bass ("Mingle In the Mincing Machine"), while the drummer Magnus Ostrom dances around formal regularity with a variety of techniques, such as using his fingers on his snare to emulate pop's rhythm samples.
EST renew the notion that the cutting edge of jazz need not involve volatile experimentation. At the head of a sense-sharpening breeze of change currently blowing through European jazz, Svensson and his back-up band, the guitarist Eivind Aarset's Electronique Noir, gave further evidence that the best European jazz is no longer a pale imitation of what is happening in the United States. Indeed, here was evidence that Europe is now moving ahead in creativity and originality.
Aarset's here-and-now reflection of jazz mixed improvisation with rhythms inspired by club culture. In the same way that Miles Davis refracted the influence of Hendrix through the chattering symbolism of Bitches Brew, his seminal jazz-rock album of 1969, Aarset projected the spirit of Hendrix's pyroclastic flow into the jumpy, nervous 21st century.
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