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Esbjorn Svensson: What Jazz Is, Not Was


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What we're doing, if you have to call it something... I guess it's jazz, but it's not what jazz was.
We're featuring this 2004 interview in memory of Esbjorn Svensson. Svensson died on June 14th at the age of 44. News.

Pianist Esbjorn Svensson leads the Swedish group EST, one of the most exciting and original piano trios in jazz today. They've been playing together for over ten years, an extraordinary length of time for a jazz lineup, and have known each other much longer than that. The group has evolved a distinctive style, in which Svensson's alternately impressionistic and driving songs are given novel textures by double-bassist Dan Berglund's ingenious use the bow and effects pedals, and drummer Magnus Ostrom's hybrid of jazz, rock, and electronica-derived rhythms. A top-20 act in Sweden, EST has won numerous honors, including this year's European Jazz Award and a BBC Jazz Award, and have gained a steady following in the States with 2002's A Strange Place for Snow (Columbia) and their latest, Seven Days of Falling (215 Records). I caught EST's show on November 10, 2004 at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, and was fortunate enough to sit down with Esbjorn Svensson to talk about the band's recordings, touring, and the state of jazz today.

Esbjorn Svensson: It's cold!

All About Jazz: Yeah, it's cold here. Was it not cold in Chicago?

ES: Yeah, cold but not so cold as here. I should have brought my Swedish coat!

AAJ: It's hectic, your plane just landed at 2 pm, then you have to go to the club, soundcheck, check in at the hotel, get some dinner.

ES: Yes, well it's normal life for us!

AAJ: The new album is fantastic. It was finished in spring of '03, but took over a year to come out in the U.S. What happened there?

ES: Yes, well, now we're working with 215 Media. We were with Sony/Columbia, but something happened there, it didn't really work. We didn't want to continue with them, they didn't want to continue with us. So there was quite a long period without a label here.

AAJ: But it was out all over Europe, right?

ES: Yes. Actually we were very close to signing a deal here with BMG [with the RCA label] here in the U.S. But we were just waiting for them to sign it and return it when they said "No, we can't do it," because, you know, they merged with Sony, a big thing going on. So that's why it took so long to come out in the US.

AAJ: We've been talking about this, that in some ways, the majors are becoming less relevant to jazz music. The internet has been great for this, in allowing good stuff on smaller labels, such as 215 Records, to get a wide airing.

ES: Well, yeah, I think it's true, and the majors probably need to re-think how they work and how they want to do things.

AAJ: And it's ironic, because Seven Days of Falling is out in Japan on Sony! So the company is so huge that the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing.

ES: That's true, it's bizarre, but in Japan, they're doing a really good job with it.

AAJ: So your last U.S. tour was with k.d. lang. How was that?

ES: Great, really great. Of course we weren't sure about what it was supposed to be before we got here, but k.d. is such a nice person and her band, it was a great team to travel around with. It was a lot of fun, and also I like the contrast between what we're doing and what she's doing.

AAJ: And the audience got it?

ES: Yeah. Sure, there were a couple of places where it didn't really work and people were talking while we were playing and we thought "what IS this?" you know, 'cause we're not used to this from Europe. But then suddenly everything changed, and the rest of the tour was great, we had a fantastic response from the audience.

AAJ: That's good, because I think sometimes that the pop and jazz worlds are more separated here in America than perhaps they are in Europe. Over there, you're on the charts in many countries, and that seems less likely to happen here—not because of the record, but just because of the way it works here.

ES: That might be true, but I think it's still pretty separated in Europe. But I think there are people, probably those who are still buying records, who are just interested in music, not in genres—they just want good music. And I think one of the labels here that is doing a good job with that is Nonesuch. It seems like they understand it, they just record good music for people who are ready to buy CDs. And I think that's exactly how it should be done. They put out all kinds of stuff but it's always of good quality.

AAJ: Yeah, they took Wilco on, that was a big deal here.

ES: They did?!?

AAJ: Yeah, after Reprise dropped them. They got dumped because Reprise hated "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and Nonesuch took them, and then it went to number 11 on the charts!

ES: Wilco is one of our favorite bands. And also, talking about different genres, they have Wilco, they have Pat Metheny...

AAJ: Brian Wilson's Smile album is on that label, Brad Mehldau, Philip Glass...

ES: Exactly! They have k.d. lang now too. I think that's great, that's exactly how you're supposed to do it. Good music is good music.

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.

AAJ: Well, there are Ellington pieces with no improvisation, and even avant-garde music, some Anthony Braxton pieces are through-composed.

ES: Yes! We just have to live with these labels... I mean, what we're doing, if you have to call it something... I guess it's jazz, but it's not what jazz was.

AAJ: Which is good! That's the point!

ES: Yeah! [laughs]. It's nothing we're fighting for, though. It's just what we play—and we play how we feel.

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