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

Renato Wardle By

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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.

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