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Esbjorn Svensson: What Jazz Is, Not Was

By Published: November 29, 2004

AAJ: I was wondering about a lot of the interesting sounds on the new album, which is beautifully recorded. For instance, is that prepared piano on "Elevation of Love?"

ES: Yes, it's very simple, just a piece of paper on the strings of the piano. It gives me, just a few strings covered with paper, so you can have that toy piano sound here and normal sound surrounding it. I happen to like that difference in sound, the destroyed piano sound with a real piano mixed together.

AAJ: Dan also uses a distortion pedal on his acoustic bass at times. Now, when you record a track, do you have those little textures and manipulations in mind from the start, or are they added later in the production?

ES: No, mainly we do everything at the first. Very seldom do we add anything afterwards. Mainly, when we go to do a take we have the sounds already.

AAJ: So you hear that manipulation of sound as you conceive the song?

ES: Yeah, from the start. You can see live that we have a couple of small devices so we can change the sound of instruments at times when we want it. This is more or less how we work all the time. We have both, the pure acoustic picture and the amplified picture and you can blend them as you wish.

AAJ: I like it because it's very tastefully done, and subtle. But are you ever tempted to go the next step, to use synths, or electric bass?

ES: Well, for me that's not the next step because I have a lot of synthesizers, I played them for many years, and Dan, he played electric bass for years. But it's not really a challenge to do that. The challenge for us is to continue working with the acoustic picture and keep the music interesting in that frame and blend in some other sounds.

AAJ: Well, there's more creativity there. I really like the electronic stuff from the late 60s, early 70s, when it was difficult to work those early machines, and the musician really had to be creative to get the sounds. Now it's preprogrammed and easy.

ES: Yes, it's much harder to create really interesting music nowadays with electronic instruments. People do it, and I think we can do it. There are recordings we have where I play synths, and I'm not saying we'll never do that again, but... It's as you say, it's really important to create your own frame, and be creative in your own frame. But it's very personal, there's no right or wrong here, it's just what we want to do now. But I can tell you that, you know, if I'm going to be alive for a few more years [laughs], I definitely want to do a synth album, all synths, sometime!

AAJ: I wanted to ask about the songwriting, which is credited to all the trio members. How do you develop the songs together?

ES: Well, you might be a little misled by that. Basically, I'm the composer of the songs. I work with the material, basically at home. Then we get together, rehearse it, and everyone kind of puts their own work into it...

AAJ: So you give them the credit?

ES: Yeah, I mean, we have a split that's more favorable to me... I mean in the money, but they are all contributing. At the end, it's a teamwork, and on stage, it's a teamwork again, as we improvise so much on the pieces.

AAJ: That brings up improvisation in the context of the songs. What I like about EST's songs is that they do have this very strong structure, very memorable melodies, verse/chorus structure, which I think a lot of modern jazz can get away from, as if people can't wait to get to...

ES: The solo!

AAJ: Yeah! A lot of tunes don't stick in your mind, and everything on Seven Days of Falling did right away.

ES: Oh, that's great...

AAJ: So I guess you have to balance that, the improvising aspect is strong but you have to have the good tunes.

ES: Yeah, I work very hard on composing music, and I know exactly what you're saying. Not just music to improvise on, but music that is music in its own right. If it fits, great, you improvise over it. I mean, I don't have a strategy or anything, I just compose from the heart. I've been inspired the last couple of years very much by classical music, and trying to learn as much as I can by the great composers, I mean, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Bartok. But then put that in a context for the trio so we can put our stamp on it, improvise a lot but in the general framework of the song itself.

AAJ: Well, it goes back to the division between genres. It used to be said that if it didn't "swing" it wasn't jazz. I think that's not so strong now, because of different rhythms brought in through fusion and also free jazz, which doesn't swing in an orthodox sense. Now, it seems that the yardstick is just improvisation. If you improvise, it's jazz, but if not, then...

ES: Yes, but then that's misguided too, and we can't forget that lots of pop musicians, they are improvising a lot, and also classical! I mean, Johann Sebastian Bach was supposed to be a fantastic improviser, and much of that church music is based on these long improvisations before you get to the melody. And I mean, all those composers... composing is improvising and improvising is composing. But you're right, the idea that if you're improvising, you're playing jazz... it's just words.

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