The Esbjörn Svensson Trio, a self-proclaimed "pop group that plays jazz," exists in between the musical realms of the ECM juggernaut Bobo Stenson Trio and art rockers Radiohead. Viaticum represents a culmination of years of relentless cooperative musical discovery for the group, which has been together since 1993.
This music, possessed of a cinematic quality, unfolds in a decidedly un-jazzy way. Rather than resorting to traditional jazz forms that merely serve as a jumping-off point for blowing, the music is presented as a unified whole, giving the impression that each song is through-composed. On the title track, Svensson's piano solo lends an organic continuation of the melody, thus forming a seamless melodic arc throughout the whole track. That cohesiveness pervades the entire recording, endowing each piece with a song-like quality that's more typical of pop music.
Viaticum doesn't explode with hyperbole; rather, it slowly builds to a boil with subtle intensity. On "Tide of Trepidation," Magnus Öström's electronica-influenced brush playing supplies the undercurrent of the piece, while his minimalistic fills are primarily comprised of a simple cymbal crash left to sizzle away. Dan Berglund's bass playing stays sparse and deliberate throughout the song, allowing Svensson ample room to expand and develop the original theme. This focus and subservience to melodic essence over personal instrumental satisfaction is a hallmark of this trio. These are songs and not merely launch pads for improvisation.
These days, employing electronics has become de rigueur for jazz records, and that aesthetic is quickly approaching pastiche. Archiving purists vilify their use in jazz, and certainly the helter-skelter nature of many electronic indulgences these days seems to support this argument. However, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio avoids this pitfall by featuring electronics as a key compositional ingredient within the fabric of the music, rather applying it as a topping in afterthought. This lends an organic nature to the effects used on Viaticum, allowing them to mold seamlessly with the acoustic soundscapes within the music.
While the Esbjörn Svensson Trio has enjoyed critical acclaim as well as immense popularity in Europe and Asia, the group has yet to explode in the US market. Bringing to bear a continued pop sensibility in their marketing, like opening for K.D. Lang on their last tour of the US, will undoubtedly bring them further exposure and eventually greater popularity. Showing record companies that this music can appeal to the masses and enjoy similar success, the true "pop" nature of this group is merely in its method of self-promotion.
Personnel: Esbjörn Svensson: piano; Dan Berglund: bass; Magnus Östrণm: drums.