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Catching Up With e.s.t.'s Dan Berglund and Magnus Ostrom


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The tragic death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson in the summer of 2008 brought to a close the 12-year run of one of the most prolific and brilliant piano trios in recent years. The enigmatically hypnotic tapestries that the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (which came to be known as e.s.t.) wove simultaneously eschewed and venerated the jazz tradition. This magnificent juxtaposition resulted in a unique musical world dealing as much with the piano trio lineage of Keith Jarrett as with the intoxicating electronica of Squarepusher.

The trio, also featuring bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, enjoyed a level of success rare among jazz groups, and unheard of amongst more experimental ensembles. Audiences amassed throughout Europe and Japan to witness e.s.t.'s profoundly intimate and extremely mesmerizing live performances.

Despite the terrible loss of Svensson, his legacy lives on in the catalogue of his recorded works (sixteen albums total, including eleven studio albums; two compilations; two live albums; and one live DVD—all with e.s.t. In 2007, while touring in Australia, the trio spent two days recording at Studio 301. After releasing some of the resultant recordings on what was ostensibly its swan song, Leucocyte (ACT, 2008), Berglund and Öström went back to the sessions, culling more material that now comprises the trio's eleventh (and posthumous) studio release, the aptly titled 301 (ACT, 2012).

During the recording sessions—consisting entirely of completely improvised music—the trio exploited its unique telepathic chemistry to the fullest. All seven of 301's tracks are so cohesive that they completely obliterates preconceived notions regarding free or improvised playing. This comes as no surprise, as e.s.t.'s milieu has been one of consistently breaking boundaries by creating music that transcends genres.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about 301. When you went into the studio, did you have any music or ideas for music that you planned to work on?

Magnus Öström: No. We just went in, put up the gear, pushed the red button, and then we just played. We played for about an hour, took a short break, and then went for a little longer. We didn't talk about anything at all beforehand. We just went for it. One idea started with me, then another idea happened from Esbjörn, and then Dan started something. The two days just went by like that, and so it's totally actually from scratch.

AAJ: That is really incredible because, without exception, every track on the record sounds through-composed. It's surprising that you just went in without any plans except to play and record and the results are so cohesive. It would be a total disaster for most groups to go into the studio and do that.

Dan Berglund: We did that a lot on the stage, with improvisation during the songs, between the songs, [at] the ending of songs and the beginning of songs. That's what we wanted to do on the recording. We had that idea to only improvise for two days; that's what we did. We didn't talk about what we should do or in what style. We just started and then saw what happened. We had a really nice time doing it.

AAJ: The joy of the playing is clear. It sounds like you are sharing the same brain. The music turns on a dime, and all three of you go to the same place musically, without missing a beat. What is fascinating is that you have always had that chemistry and telepathy, even on your earliest recordings.

DB: It's hard to tell. I think we had some of the same ideas about music. I mean I wasn't in the trio from the very beginning, but maybe we had the same brain. But Magnus is shaking his head right now [laughter].

AAJ: How would classify the jazz trio?

MO: Wow, that is a tough question. I think it's really hard to kind of cook it down to a few words. In the end, not to say too much, but it sounds like we created our own e.s.t. world, in a way. But, of course, we are in the tradition of all the heroes before us, you know from Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett and so on. So, of course, we are kind of a piano trio in that sense and that tradition. But then somehow we incorporated all different kinds of styles. It just came out with the combination of the three of us; it created this kind of whole music. But it's really hard to say exactly what it is. I'm no clever journalist; I can't come up with a clever name for the music.

AAJ: There seems to be a strong influence, in particular on Esbjörn, from Keith Jarrett's trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian.

MO: Yeah, in the beginning when we played that was our main influence, I think. We listened a lot to the old trio; that was what we really loved. That Paul Motian and Charlie Haden trio, and also with Dewey Redman, when it was a quartet. We really loved their energy and flow, so sometimes it might shine through.

AAJ: How do you view e.s.t. in terms of its position or legacy in the continuum of music?

DB: Do you mean what was special about the e.s.t.?

AAJ: Yeah, but not just that. Some people would say that e.s.t. fits somewhere in between the Keith Jarrett trio and Squarepusher. How do you categorize or view e.s.t.?

DB: That's right, very much, in a way, between Squarepusher and Keith Jarrett. Even more so with traditional jazz, like Bill Evans and stuff like that. Also, we were really inspired by lots of classical music as well as music from the rock scene. Especially me, because I grew up with lots of hard rock. I think you can hear it in our music because we all have different backgrounds, but we are all almost the same age and have the same heroes from the seventies and so on. All of that became the sound of the trio.

AAJ: What do you see as e.s.t.'s legacy?

DB: Wow, that's a hard question. Maybe it's harder for me to answer because I was in the trio. For me, I think it was all the improvisation that we did together. We had the same energy, and we tried to collect our energy together. I think that was really important. Of course all the songs that Esbjörn wrote during those years were really strong. The sound that we created together, I think that you can hear that those are Esbjörn Svensson Trio songs; well, I hope that is our legacy.

AAJ: Part of the trio's legacy would be the actual length of time you spent working together as a band. Few ensembles Have stayed together that long.

DB: Not many, no. But, of course, when you get that sound, that band sound together, I think you need some years together to achieve that. What about the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, they have played for a long time.

AAJ: That's true, but on and off. You were more of a band, only playing with each other until the trio was done. I'm not aware that you or Magnus did any side projects until after the trio ended, though Esbjörn did the occasional date with trombonist Nils Landgren.

DB: That's right.

AAJ: I think that's a big difference. The idea or concept of a band has always been prevalent in rock music, from The Beatles up until Meshuggah, but not in jazz. I mean you have Miles Davis' first and second great quintets or John Coltrane's classic quartet, but those ensembles were really only together for a short time, compared to e.s.t.

DB: Wow, you're right. I never really thought about that like that but you are right.

AAJ: Magnus, how do you think the trio will be remembered in thirty or forty years?

MO: Hopefully it is gonna be remembered like it was, as a melting pot for integrating all these different kinds of music. That we kind of pushed the borders of what the piano trio could do. It's really hard to talk about yourself, but if you try to look at it from outside I think there is an idea of what you are allowed to do and can do in jazz or in music in general. But you can go as far as you want to and create amazing stuff, actually. I hope that we kind of made a mark in the music industry in that sense. So that generations after us will know that you can just go for your ideas, and also be open to everything and do whatever you want. Just be open-minded. You don't have to listen all the people around you that say you can't do this or you can't do that.

AAJ: Yeah, no boundaries. That brings up an interesting question. Did you have a difficult time with record companies and their marketing departments. Did they ever insist that you had to do a more specifically traditional jazz recording, or try to pigeonhole you in that way?

MO: No; actually we were really lucky in that we were totally free to do whatever we wanted. The only time that we did such a thing was the first album we did on a pop label in Sweden. The record, Esbjörn Svensson Trio Plays Monk (Superstudio GUL, 1996), we played Thelonious Monk stuff. That was an idea, the general idea came from the record company. They said that maybe we should do a kind of concept album, compositions from one of the big artists in the jazz world. We thought about it, because we wanted to do our own music. We thought, "Yeah, let's try." We all loved Monk so we chose his music, but the record company had the idea first. I think that was the only time that we even discussed what we should do with anyone. But that was actually a nice recording, but we did it our own way. Still, it is more in the tradition; you can really hear the crossover—how much we embraced the tradition but also how much we broke away from that tradition.

Photo Credit: Tobias Regell



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