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."

A Rock Band Playing Jazz?

The other musicians on Thread Of Life are all part of the Stockholm jazz scene, but remain relatively unknown outside Sweden. Öström was also unfamiliar with these players at first: "We had been touring for years, and I wasn't really connected to what was happening in Sweden. Then finally I began to meet some of the new guys on the scene, partly through working on Jeanette Lindström's album. In fact, two of the guys from Thread Of Life; Andreas Hourdakis, the guitarist, and Thobias Gabrielson, the bassist; are on that album. They were great people and I knew that as I got this album together I would ask them to join me. They both wanted to, which was great, so we tried things out and it worked really, really well."

L-R: Thobias Gabrielson, Gustav Karlof, Magnus Ostrom, Andreas Hourdakis

The fourth member of Öström's line-up is keyboard player Gustaf Karlöf, who Öström first heard of from members of the Stockholm scene. "Gustaf's was a name that I heard being mentioned by other people. Then I think Thobias told me about him—I think that they had played together in Thobias' band. So I checked him out and found out about the variety of things he has done, from jazz to really strange electronica stuff, to pop. I like that openness to things: I really like people to be open-minded. So I called him up and he was also really happy to try out. We had a terrific couple of jams during the summer to check out our sound, our musical language, and it fell into place really quickly. Somehow we got a band sound really soon. I'm really happy about it—they're great guys and fantastic musicians."

It's notable that Öström refers to people's personal qualities as often as he does to their musical abilities: a good personal relationship with his fellow musicians is clearly of great importance to him. "This is very important to me: I have real trouble playing with people I don't get along with. I need to feel that there is a nice, friendly, atmosphere. It's even more important to me than how people play. Of course, there has to be a certain level of ability, but personal qualities are important to the music. Conflict on the bandstand can bring an energy to the music, but it can also be very destructive in the long run. Of course, after you play together you can all go and stay in different hotels, and that can work as well, but it's better to start off by having fun together even if it doesn't work out in the long run."

Öström had most of the music for Thread Of Life written before he formed the band, working on composition alone. "I write on piano: I am absolutely not a pianist but I compose with it. Then I work on the music in my own small studio: I record the piano part then I go to the drums and play a drum part, then listen to how that sounds." Öström's working pattern reflects the approach used in e.s.t., as he explains: "Esbjörn would bring the tune, then usually he would play it through then he and Dan would play it together then I would sit down and listen to it maybe two or three times and work out what I would do with it. So this was the same process—except that I was alone."

Öström went on to make demos for the band members, giving them a structure but not a finished product: "It's very important to me that the other guys can give their own voices to the music so they are part of the thing. I don't want them simply to repeat what I tell them... Of course, I also write a few things down: the melody lines, the chords. Then we work from there." Some of the album's extended pieces also sound as if there are improvised passages. To what extent is this improvisation happening? "On the longer, atmospheric, pieces there is quite a lot of improvisation, but it's still on the chords of the song, on the basic structure."

Recordings have their physical limits, CDs can only contain so much music, so there does have to be some control over this creative process. Öström is happy to take on that side of the producer's role: "The album is quite produced, what can I say? There is also a limit time wise. The record is very, very long (it comes in at around 75 minutes): I did take away some stuff. I took out one song, the album was still very long, but I thought 'Ah, what the heck.'"

Öström is obviously happy with his new musical partners: the quartet is set to be a touring band, beginning in spring of 2011. "If I can keep the guys together, of course. With the Trio it wasn't a problem, we didn't have other bands to play in, but you know how it is for young musicians nowadays, they have to play in lots of bands just to have a life. But as much as I can I will keep this group together." The next thorny question for Öström is what to call the ensemble, something he is not yet decided upon: "I don't know what to call it really. First of all it was my name, then I tried to figure out a band name, then I thought , well, it's my record so I'll put my name on it. But Thread Of Life could be a name for the project, the band, as well as for the album. Maybe there's a connection with Tony Williams, with Lifetime."

The press release for Thread Of Life describes the album as "a rock band playing jazz:" does Öström agree? "In a way you can say that, but it's always hard to put a label on what is what. When I was younger I listened to a lot of rock: my older brother would play lots of Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple. And the guitarist, Andreas, used to be a total Metallica freak, so there's a lot of rock in the band. But these guys can play all sorts of music. I don't really care about the labels, it's more about the music."

Even if labels are important, there is so much variety on Thread Of Life that a single label is very hard to apply. "Piano Break Music" has distinct dance and techno roots, Hourdakis' guitar solos have a progressive rock style to them. Then there is what may become the most talked-about track on the album, a tune that has a strong Americana feel: "Ballad For E."

Ballad For E

This tune is the album's clearest link to Svensson, not just in its title, but also in the line-up of performers. Öström's new band take time out, for this tune is performed by Öström, Berglund and Metheny. It's a beautiful tune, beautifully performed—"Late night playing, humble playing" as Öström puts it. "It was the first thing I wrote; at the end of 2008" explains the drummer. "It came to me really easily and clearly, and I felt immediately that this was a song for Esbjörn. Once that was clear I felt that I wanted to bring Dan, and also our sound engineer Åke Linton, to work on it. I really wanted us to be together on this. Very soon my thoughts went to Pat, but I knew that he rarely guests on stuff so I hesitated for a long while before I actually asked him. But I had to ask him, otherwise I would have regretted it."

Metheny happily agreed, which clearly pleased Öström: "I was so happy that it all worked out." The recording took place in New York, with Öström, Berglund and Linton all crossing the Atlantic for that one track. "It was probably a bit crazy, but what can I say?" says Öström, laughing. "I needed to do it, and it was a little bit of a once in a lifetime thing. Pat was very busy, but we found time in the first week of December 2010 so we put it all together."

"Ballad For E" became a real collaboration, as Öström acknowledges with pride: "When we met at the studio Pat showed me his arrangement of the song, so the recording is Pat's arrangement. He put a lot of effort and heart into it and I was more or less speechless. It wasn't just another session for him, he really wanted to honor the Trio and Esbjörn."

With the first album ready for release and a new band which is clearly giving him great pleasure, has Öström started to plan further projects? Not yet, as he explains: "Just now I am very much in this moment. Of course I have a lot of ideas but I am really looking forward to playing live with this band, to seeing where it leads. I'm looking forward to making another record with these guys but you never know: the whole business of making records might be at an end, so I'm happy that I at least got to make one with this band."

A few days before this interview Öström played live with pianist Eliane Elias and bassist Marc Johnson: his first gig in a piano trio since e.s.t. "It was fun," he says, "I was introduced to them a couple of years ago and we decided we wanted to play together, I'll see where that leads. We'll see what the future brings."

Selected Discography

Magnus Öström, Thread Of Life (ACT, 2011)

Jeanette Lindström, Attitude And Orbit Control (Diesel Music, 2009)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Retrospective: The Very Best Of e.s.t. (ACT, 2009)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Leucocyte (ACT, 2008)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Live In Hamburg (ACT, 2007)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Tuesday Wonderland (ACT, 2006)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Viaticum (ACT, 2005)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Seven Days Of Falling (ACT, 2003)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Strange Place For Snow (ACT, 2002)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Good Morning Susie Soho (ACT, 2000)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, From Gagarin's Point of View (ACT, 1999)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Winter in Venice (ACT, 1997)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Plays Monk (ACT, 1997)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, e.s.t. Live '95 (ACT, 1995)

Esbjörn Svensson Trio, When Everyone Has Gone (Dragon, 1993)

Photo Credits
All Photos: Per Kristiansen

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