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Esbjorn Svensson: What Jazz Is, Not Was

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What we're doing, if you have to call it something... I guess it's jazz, but it's not what jazz was.
We're featuring this 2004 interview in memory of Esbjorn Svensson. Svensson died on June 14th at the age of 44. News.

Pianist Esbjorn Svensson leads the Swedish group EST, one of the most exciting and original piano trios in jazz today. They've been playing together for over ten years, an extraordinary length of time for a jazz lineup, and have known each other much longer than that. The group has evolved a distinctive style, in which Svensson's alternately impressionistic and driving songs are given novel textures by double-bassist Dan Berglund's ingenious use the bow and effects pedals, and drummer Magnus Ostrom's hybrid of jazz, rock, and electronica-derived rhythms. A top-20 act in Sweden, EST has won numerous honors, including this year's European Jazz Award and a BBC Jazz Award, and have gained a steady following in the States with 2002's A Strange Place for Snow (Columbia) and their latest, Seven Days of Falling (215 Records).

I caught EST's show on November 10, 2004 at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, and was fortunate enough to sit down with Esbjorn Svensson to talk about the band's recordings, touring, and the state of jazz today.

Esbjorn Svensson: It's cold!

All About Jazz: Yeah, it's cold here. Was it not cold in Chicago?

ES: Yeah, cold but not so cold as here. I should have brought my Swedish coat!

AAJ: It's hectic, your plane just landed at 2 pm, then you have to go to the club, soundcheck, check in at the hotel, get some dinner.

ES: Yes, well it's normal life for us!

AAJ: The new album is fantastic. It was finished in spring of '03, but took over a year to come out in the U.S. What happened there?

ES: Yes, well, now we're working with 215 Media. We were with Sony/Columbia, but something happened there, it didn't really work. We didn't want to continue with them, they didn't want to continue with us. So there was quite a long period without a label here.

AAJ: But it was out all over Europe, right?

ES: Yes. Actually we were very close to signing a deal here with BMG [with the RCA label] here in the U.S. But we were just waiting for them to sign it and return it when they said "No, we can't do it," because, you know, they merged with Sony, a big thing going on. So that's why it took so long to come out in the US.

AAJ: We've been talking about this, that in some ways, the majors are becoming less relevant to jazz music. The internet has been great for this, in allowing good stuff on smaller labels, such as 215 Records, to get a wide airing.

ES: Well, yeah, I think it's true, and the majors probably need to re-think how they work and how they want to do things.

AAJ: And it's ironic, because Seven Days of Falling is out in Japan on Sony! So the company is so huge that the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing.

ES: That's true, it's bizarre, but in Japan, they're doing a really good job with it.

AAJ: So your last U.S. tour was with k.d. lang. How was that?

ES: Great, really great. Of course we weren't sure about what it was supposed to be before we got here, but k.d. is such a nice person and her band, it was a great team to travel around with. It was a lot of fun, and also I like the contrast between what we're doing and what she's doing.

AAJ: And the audience got it?

ES: Yeah. Sure, there were a couple of places where it didn't really work and people were talking while we were playing and we thought "what IS this?" you know, 'cause we're not used to this from Europe. But then suddenly everything changed, and the rest of the tour was great, we had a fantastic response from the audience.

AAJ: That's good, because I think sometimes that the pop and jazz worlds are more separated here in America than perhaps they are in Europe. Over there, you're on the charts in many countries, and that seems less likely to happen here—not because of the record, but just because of the way it works here.

ES: That might be true, but I think it's still pretty separated in Europe. But I think there are people, probably those who are still buying records, who are just interested in music, not in genres—they just want good music. And I think one of the labels here that is doing a good job with that is Nonesuch. It seems like they understand it, they just record good music for people who are ready to buy CDs. And I think that's exactly how it should be done. They put out all kinds of stuff but it's always of good quality.

AAJ: Yeah, they took Wilco on, that was a big deal here.

ES: They did?!?

AAJ: Yeah, after Reprise dropped them. They got dumped because Reprise hated "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and Nonesuch took them, and then it went to number 11 on the charts!

ES: Wilco is one of our favorite bands. And also, talking about different genres, they have Wilco, they have Pat Metheny...

AAJ: Brian Wilson's Smile album is on that label, Brad Mehldau, Philip Glass...

ES: Exactly! They have k.d. lang now too. I think that's great, that's exactly how you're supposed to do it. Good music is good music.


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