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Magnus Ostrom: Late Night Playing, Humble Playing

Bruce Lindsay By

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Conflict on the bandstand can bring an energy to the music, but it can also be very destructive in the long run. I have real trouble playing with people I don't get along with.
As the drummer with the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) Magnus Öström became one of the most successful European jazz musicians of the last twenty years. Influenced by a range of musics, his percussion style was a key element of the band's distinctive sound, while the Trio's success over the 15 years of its existence brought it international fame and brought Öström to the attention of a world-wide audience.

After Svensson's death in a diving accident in June 2008 both Öström and bassist Dan Berglund took time out from the jazz scene. Berglund re-emerged with Tonbruket in 2009, releasing the band's eponymous debut on ACT in early 2010. Öström took a longer sabbatical but in late 2010 he recorded once more, producing Thread Of Life (ACT, 2011), which features Öström's new band of Swedish musicians, but also reunites him with Berglund and occasional e.s.t. collaborator Pat Metheny on the beautiful "Ballad For E."

Thread Of Life is Öström's first album as leader. A few weeks prior to its release Öström spoke from his home in Sweden of his hopes for the future, his renewed love for playing and his perspective on music. Öström is a friendly and engaging conversationalist, quietly spoken and thoughtful but with an easy sense of humor. He describes the making of his own album as..." a distant goal. I knew that I had the chance to make an album, but I didn't really know where or when." The opportunity arose in far from desirable circumstances but Öström seems to be glad that he has taken the chance.

Immediately after Svensson's death, Öström stopped playing music altogether: "I didn't touch my drums, for maybe half a year. But around Christmas or New Year I sat at my piano and started to play a little bit, just to get in touch with music again." This was the start of Öström's re-engagement with his chosen art form. it was a process which was full of "ups and downs," as he describes it, but was there a time when he thought that he would never return to playing? "Yeh, absolutely. I thought that maybe I'd done it, achieved what I could, because we reached so far in the Trio that I couldn't really find meaning in going back. Then somehow I did."

When Öström recommenced playing this was initially very low-key and centered on the piano: "I was just playing at home, just piano, not drums. Then it happened that Lars Danielsson, the bassist, called me up and asked me if I wanted to join him for a couple of gigs. He called me at the right moment—now it was time—so I said 'Yes' and I'm really happy that I did, thankful to him for calling me, because it was really fun for me to get back on stage." The band included pianist Leszek Mozdzer, trumpeter Mathias Eick and guitarist John Parricelli: "Great musicians," says Öström.

Soon after Öström made his return to live performance Swedish vocalist Jeanette Lindström asked him to get involved in her new album, Attitude And Orbit Control (Diesel Music, 2009). Öström both played on and co-produced the album: "It was important for me to get back in the studio, to have fun with the music again."

Chapter Index
  1. Thread of Life
  2. A Rock Band Playing Jazz?
  3. Ballad for E

Thread Of Life

For Öström these were important projects, but he was careful to avoid too much work, too much exposure: "I've really done very few things, I was very selective, you could say. Then I decided that the time was right to do this album."

One of the first things to notice about Thread Of Life is Öström's choice of song titles. Some of them, such as "Longing," "Weight of Death" and "Hymn for the Past" seem to have emerged very directly from the drummer's experience. However, as Öström tells it this was not his conscious intention: "Somehow, who can say. It was only when I put all the titles together in a list that I realized how dark it looked. Darker than I thought, actually."

In fact, the titles on Thread Of Life are not all dark. While much of the music is sad there are also upbeat tunes. "Piano Break Song," for example, is a groove-laden, danceable, number: "Yeh, absolutely" agrees Öström. Across the album as a whole, the music is far from reflecting the darkness of some of the titles. Öström emphasizes that fact, stressing the album's optimism: "Some of the music is dark, but some of it isn't: there's hope and fun there as well. It's not only darkness."

"Piano Break Song" is probably the album's most immediate tune as well as the most upbeat. Öström makes an interesting point about the interpretations that are already being put upon the title: " 'Piano Break Song' was a working title, based on the way the piano gets played on the tune. But some people could look at it and see some connection with Esbjörn's death—you can interpret it in different ways."

The cover design for Thread Of Life also raises the issue of darkness: quite literally, on one level, as the cover is overwhelmingly black in color. The blackness is broken by the text of the liner notes and by three stark, monochrome, photos of Öström himself. Of the two photos inside the sleeve, one shows Öström's naked back, the other shows him hiding his face behind his upturned hands. On the front, Öström stands holding a cymbal in one hand, naked from the waist up, staring intently at the camera. While the album's song titles may have a degree of ambiguity to them, these photos seem much more explicit. The photos, by photographer and cover designer Per Kristiansen, are amazingly effective—a complement which Öström receives with a cheerful "Thanks" before going on to explain the thinking behind them.

"I didn't intend for the design to look like this from the beginning. Per tried working in the studio, and outdoors, taking photos until finally we came up with the idea. I like it—and of course, I have to stand up for it too. The music on the album is very much mine, it's from the inside of me, it's very emotional. It shows a lot of my own soul. So why not show my skin as well. So that's the relation between the photos and the music. There's another connection for me as well: this is my work, like being in a factory in a way."

Once again, there are other interpretations that could, and probably will be, applied to the photographs. Öström tells of two such viewpoints: "Someone told me that the photos reflect my coming out of the dark, back into the world of music. And someone else told me that it looks like the old connection between jazz and boxing—Miles Davis for example." Öström seems intrigued by this idea, but the link is not one he follows personally: "I'm not a boxing fan. I used to be kind of a pacifist, but occasionally it is interesting to see some of that stuff: but mostly it's too brutal."

The discussion about the cover design brings the subject of the nature of the music back again, and in particular the sadder, more emotive, tunes on the album. A key tune is "Longing," definitely an intense and sad tune, but also one that seems filled with a sense of optimism. Öström agrees; "Yes, I think so too. It is double-sided. There is sadness but it also has hope."


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