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3x3: Piano Trios: October 2019

Geno Thackara By

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Esbjörn Svensson Trio
Live in Gothenburg
ACT Music
2019

At the time, it was a marvel. The Esbjorn Svensson Trio had already come a long way since their early-'90s beginnings in reshaping the already-skewed traditions of Monk-ian jazz. Their audiences back in 2001 would have been continually thrilled at discovering this fresh slant on the classic piano trio, bridging bop flair with hooks and grooves drawn from the modern rock and electronica scenes. Looking back on this performance (one of Svensson's own favorites) with nearly two decades of hindsight, knowing how much further the band continued to re-envision this addictingly eclectic sound in the time they had... well, it's still a marvel. Each new/old addition to this perpetually fresh catalogue is always a reason to celebrate.

The spectrum of e.s.t.'s sound is on beautiful display here, just past what turned out to be the midpoint of their career. "Wraith" and the jittery "Providence" show Magnus Ostrom's frisky trance rhythms drawing a line back to Elvin Jones as well as shaping a new mold to be carried on by rave-jazzers such as GoGo Penguin afterward. The sonics get another modern tweak when Dan Berglund gives his double bass an occasional dash of his trademark electric fuzz. Highlights like the title track to the then-recent Good Morning Susie Soho (ACT, 2000) throw it all into one big pot, giving all three space to shine with their own combination of notes and noises.

Most important of all is the scintillating chemistry of these fine and finely attuned players, which lets us hear not just their musical mastery, but the deep longtime friendship and affection that always ran underneath. Svensson and Berglund gleefully turn "The Rube Thing" into a labyrinthine race with both unison sprints and sharp counterpoints. A light tropical breeze through "Somewhere Else Before," the thoughtful semi-blues of "Second Page" and the warm jauntiness of the previously unreleased "Bowling" all show the same irresistible playfulness in very different ways. Live in Gothenburg's running time is full of those little charms that made e.s.t. such a phenomenon, not just unclassifiable but wicked-smart and always subtly joyful.

Max Agnas Trio
Komposition VII
Loumi Records
2019

Somewhat like Svensson in idiosyncrasy if not in sound, Max Agnas is also a player who doesn't want to take the clear road and has instead begun to carve his own at an impressive age. Interestingly, his talent is a mature one that leans more toward cerebral writing than flashy playing. Komposition VII is a fascinating mix of familiar and skewed; these subtly alluring melodies are never awkward to listen to, but the familiar song forms continually make shifts and turns in ways that aren't obvious.

That's not to say that there's anything disappointing about the playing on Agnas' third outing with this close-knit trio—the players are always in thoughtful step together as they give light and shade to these songs' simple-seeming forms. The sum of their parts on this recording is sly, moody, rich in atmosphere and not afraid to get a little weird. There's a vague background dusting of synth noise over the crystalline tumbling of "Maj" or the bouncy "Bobs Ben." Spots like "Jag Vill Kunna Dansa" are straightforward acoustic meditations instead, while the aptly-titled "Cowboy Jazz" brings things down to earth (dusty earth at that) with some true-blue charm. Each piece is its own well-crafted statement with no gimmicks or embellishments needed.

Florian Hoefner Trio
First Spring
Alma Records
2019

Starting off with a spry dance reel (bowed on the bass rather than fiddled), First Spring sets itself noticeably closer to folk territory than anything too obviously jazzy. Next up comes a rustic piece from the late Levon Helm reinvented as a ruminative piano vamp halfway between classic Broadway and the countryside pub. The rest of this pleasant hour wanders a similar line to beautiful results; Florian Hoefner clearly knows his way around jazzy chords and solos, though two-thirds of this material comes from from the worlds of Americana and bluegrass instead. Bassist Andrew Downing does break out the bow in a couple more spots, but the folky flavor comes more from the leader's down-home arrangements and the band's quietly majestic performance.

Whatever the source, the trio brings each piece at least halfway into the jazz realm like someone pulling a partner onto the floor for a line dance. The title track (one of Hoefner's originals) has piano and bass staggering in a catchily non-straightforward dance; "Solstice" also makes impressionistic pictures with a lively bounce, while the Scottish ballad "Maid on the Shore" roils with crashing piano waves worthy of McCoy Tyner. First Spring is a sleeper in the finest traditional mold: a seemingly unassuming offering that turns out to blossom like a highland rose.

Tracks and Personnel   

Live in Gothenburg    

Tracks: CD1: Dating; Somewhere Else Before; The Rube Thing; From Gagarin's Point of View; The Wraith. CD2: Providence; Good Morning Susie Soho; The Chapel; Bowling; The Second Page; Dodge the Dodo.

Personnel: Esbjörn Svensson: piano; Dan Berglund: bass; Magnus Öström: drums.

Komposition VII    

Tracks: Prelude; Maj; Långsamt; Bobs Ben; Jag Vill Kunna Dansa; Circel; Cowboy Jazz; Göteborg.

Personnel: Max Agnas: piano and synth; Mauritz Agnas: double bass; Sebastian Voegler: drums.

First Spring    

Tracks: Hound's Tune; Calvary; First Spring; Maid on the Shore; Winter in June; Loosin Yelav; Short Life; Solstice; Rain and Snow.

Personnel: Florian Hoefner: piano; Andrew Downing: bass; Nick Fraser: drums.
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