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Remembering Esbjorn Svensson

Ian Patterson By

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The shocking news of the death of Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson in a diving accident off Stochholm, on Saturday 14th June, will surely deeply sadden music lovers everywhere.

I say music lovers, as opposed to strictly jazz lovers, as Svensson himself was neither restricted nor confined by categories, and was perhaps rather perplexed by the need of some to constantly attempt to define what jazz is. The music he recorded and played alongside drummer Magnus Ostrom and bassist Dan Berglund for fifteen years embraced the idiosyncrasy and fun of Thelonious Monk, echoed the drama and penchant for melody of Johann Sebastian Bach, and rivaled the energy of prog-rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer in their halcyon days; the first two were influences, (E.S.T's second studio album was a selection of Monk tunes) the third is mere supposition. What is sure however, is that Svensson's music was drawn from many sources and appealed to a broad demographic; the Esbjorn Svensson Trio's concerts brought together jazzers and rockers alike, and likely converted die-hards both ways across the divide.

I will never forget the first time I saw E.S.T. in a municipal theatre in Valencia, Spain, in 2001. Svensson's trio was the support act that night, and it was one of those rare occasions when it dawns on you rather quickly that the support is something special, relegating the main act to a role of welcome, though anti-climactic bonus. There was no dry ice, no lavish light-show either, but the music that Svensson, Ostrom and Magnusen conjured that evening raised goose-pimples. The unmistakable Nordic roots (elegiac, melancholy and folkloric) underlying a jazz syncopation twisted around a rock aesthetic, made for a unique and powerful cocktail.

At the epicenter was Esbjorn Svensson. Technically muscular, his energized, cascading runs were as spectacular as a Cresta sled run, and his contemplative playing in turn somehow grand, and blue as a glacier. His music remains above all else melodic, and his knack for penning instantly memorable tunes was notable; a typical E.S.T. concert would see Svensson playfully forgetting the title of the songs they had just played: "We just played, em, what was it...?" only for numerous voices from the audience to set the record straight.

In over a decade and a half as a recording artist his forays outside of E.S.T. were not numerous; he recorded with singers Viktoria Tolstoy and Nicolai Dunger, and with trombonist Nils Landgren. However, his energy and focus rested with Magnus Ostrum and Dan Berglund, and the trio they had gigged so long and hard to establish around the world. Sooner or later, one suspects, he would have tackled a solo album, as most pianists seem compelled to do at some point in their trajectory. No doubt it would have been instantly recognizable as an Esbjorn Svensson work, (with melody the blood in the veins of the music) and caused a headache for those who would seek to stick his music in a box.

The tragic passing of Esbjorn Svensson at the age of forty four has robbed Sweden of arguably its greatest musical son since pianist Jan Johansson. It has also brought down the curtain on one of the most brilliant piano trios to enliven the modern jazz panorama, unsettle the jazz police, and in what was perhaps Svensson's greatest achievement, to attract all-comers. He will be sorely missed.

Esbjorn Svensson is survived by his wife and two sons.

Related Article
Esbjorn Svensson: What Jazz Is, Not Was (2004 Interview)


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