e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio)
It's too easy to fall into the trap of calling the last recording by a recently deceased artist "his best ever" or "a fitting end to his recorded legacy," but in the case of the final release by Swedish jazz superstars e.s.t. before their titular leader, pianist Esbjörn Svensson, died in a tragic diving accident in June, 2008, it's the only way to describe it. Leucocyte is an album that's like nothing the trio has released before, yet it possesses the unmistakable personality that caused the group to rise from obscurity in the mid-1990s to rock star-like fame (at least, in relative jazz terms) in recent years with albums including Tuesday Wonderland (ACT, 2006) and the particularly noteworthy Live in Hamburg (ACT, 2007).
Culled from two days of free improvisations recorded in an Australian studio in the middle of a tour, it's proof that, despite the production veneer that gave earlier albums like Viaticum (ACT, 2005) a pop-like sensibility, e.s.t. was, at its heart, an improvising band. Many of its compositionssometimes complex writing that remained completely accessible, but other times profoundly lyrical music of spare simplicitystemmed from ad hoc days spent experimenting in recording studios. But while the group would normally take the results and shape them into more defined form, Leucocyte is presented as it was recordedwith, of course, the additional post-production that always broadened the group's aural landscape into something that drew on elements as far-reaching as Keith Jarrett, Radiohead and Motorhead.
Two lengthy, multi-part suites make up the bulk of Leucocytethe 27-minute, four-part title track and 23-minute, two-part "Premonition." "Premonition - Earth" is a 16-minute modal workout for Svensson that revolves around a potent groove from bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström that relentlessly builds in intensity. Svensson's unfettered yet ever-focused solo is a defining moment that positions him for the jazz history books as more than a contributor to the distinctive, collective voice of e.s.t., but as a remarkable and memorable player in his own right who deserves to be remembered beyond the confines of the group.
But it's the collective interaction that makes Leucocyte the most edgy, adventurous record of e.s.t.'s career. Berglund's harsh, overdriven arco bass has long been a marker, but here it goes beyond heavy metal leanings into the realm of soundscapes, despite "Leucocyte - Ab Initio" being more aggressive than anything the group has done previously. Hard though it is to imagine the group without Svensson, Leucocyte makes clear, more than any other e.s.t. release, that it was always a collective. Öström, capable of both powerful backbeats and textural color, is an equal contributor as the trio enters wholly electronic territory on the closing "Leucocyte - Ad Infinitum," a piece of noise improv that, with ambient overtones, still remains strangely beautiful.
Still, for all e.s.t.'s broad range of influences, the jazz tradition was always a fundamental. The fiery free-bop of the aptly titled "Jazz" is another modal exchange, but this time with Berglund and Öström swinging mightily beneath another impressive solo from Svensson. The moving "Premonition - Contorted," on the other hand, sounds lovingly preconceived despite its in-the-moment spontaneity, with a set of simple changes pulled from the ether, even as layers of electronic processinglive and post-productiongive the piece even greater shape.
That Leucocyte was delivered in its final form before Svensson's untimely death makes clear that this was not some session hurriedly pieced together to capitalize on Svensson's death. That very fact is what makes the loss of Svensson even more tragic. While it would be unfair to say the group had in recent years plateaued, there was a hint of predictability creeping into the its studio recordings (something not at all present on its live recordings). Leucocyte captures the excitement of a trio of musicians who were, after working intensively together for 15 years to the point of rare empathy, making a grand leap into new territory while still sounding like themselves and no other.
Fans may argue whether or not Leucocyte is the best record in e.s.t.'s 15-year run, but there's no question that the trio couldn't have gone out on a better note. The real tragedy is we'll never know where they'd have gone next.
Tracks: Decade; Premonition - Earth; Premonition - Contorted; Jazz; Still; Ajar; Leucocyte - Ab Initio; Leucocyte - Ad Interim; Leucocyte - Ad Mortem; Leucocyte - Ad Infinitum.
Personnel: Esbjörn Svensson: piano; Dan Berglkund: bass; Magnu Öström: drums.