The Esbjorn Svensson Trio—or E.S.T. as it is known in their rock band mode—is a group of Swedish jazz musicians who have a made a strong impact with a wide audience by fusing compelling jazz lyricism with a nice dollop of pop groove. In short, E.S.T. is what Keith Jarrett might have been were he not a stubborn traditionalist who likes to yell at his public. And, frankly, that might be seen as a good thing or it might be seen as a bad thing.
On the good side, E.S.T. has now put out ten discs of accessible contemporary jazz, the latest being Tuesday Wonderland. This is music that has gone from fresh takes on the jazz classics (E.S.T. Plays Monk) to experimentation with both pop and classical forms. The band has been sonically adventurous in the manner of rock bands such as Radiohead or Wilco, and it is said to see itself more as a rock than a jazz group. On the other hand, the heart and soul of any E.S.T. album is Svensson’s rhapsodic piano playing, grounded so utterly in Bill Evans via Keith Jarrett that the band can hardly escape a “jazz” label. It’s not criticism if I say that E.S.T. can properly be seen in the same camp as Medeski, Martin & Wood and the Bad Plus as piano trios that are helping to redefine the popular side of jazz in the new century.
On the bad side, E.S.T. has been mining a limited vein of cool lyricism that the band now seems eager to dress up in electronic clothes. “The Goldhearted Miner” is a fine example from the new one—a gentle and memorable tune for acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and brushed drums that lets Svensson spin gorgeous gold from its harmonic fibers; each chord seems to surprise your ear with an expected sweet/sadness. The band is, however, unwilling to let it stand as-is and adds a repeated three-note figure before each chorus played on a prepared piano—or more likely on some kind of electronically processed piano. Here, as on most of Tuesday Wonderland, the electronics seem unnecessary or distracting.
The disc opens and closes with a tune called “Fading Maid”—a bit of atmospheric classical Romanticism at first, leading to a thudding electronic squall over a slow backbeat. E.S.T. boasts that it has been playing bigger and bigger venues, riding up the European pop charts, and you can believe it. “Fading Maid” sounds very much like Pink Floyd drama—an overwrought soundtrack that consciously flips from gentility to darkness (or vice versa) for effect. It seems to me less artful than it is dramatic.
Which is not to say that Tuesday Wonderland doesn’t contain some classic E.S.T. sounds. The title track stands out, built on a hip bass line that is doubled by the piano and Dan Berglund’s bass then set against a cool counterpoint melody. “Tuesday” uses a cool breeze of electronics on the bridge. The centerpiece, however, remains the steely piano solo that is exciting from the start but builds to a climax that is dramatically satisfying. What bands like E.S.T. and the Bad Plus bring to jazz is not just the texture and bash of rock but also the sense of drama that is sometimes lost amidst jazz’s artful smartness. And so the last third of “Tuesday” is little more than a repeated riff, building in intensity with the electric wash behind it, but it works as “jazz” because the preceding improvised solo was integrally part of the rise.
I’m not as enamored of “Brewery for Beggars”, for example, which begins as an atmospheric wash then alternates between a fast-rolling left-hand bass line and various half-time breakdowns (classical, folky, etc.). The electronics here (and mostly throughout) have the quality of some kind of distorted electric harpsichord that wishes it was a Strat. The eventual piano solo—accomplished and exciting by any measure—is thrilling, but when it’s over you know that you’re in for a return to the too-busy electro-head arrangement. It’s a bit like a delicious piece of cheese between two stale slices of bread. Why do I have wade through all this stadium prog-rock to get to the choice stuff?
There is some tedious stuff on the other side, too. “Beggar’s Blanket” is three minutes of pseudo-baroque counterpoint that is meant to work as part of the programmatic element of the record but that you would skip whenever it came up in the shuffle of your iPod. “Goldwrap” is built much like “Brewery” but has a tedious middle section built on electronica-style percussion—an attractive piece of soundtrack music at best. And “Sipping on the Solid Ground” is the kind of slow backbeat Keith Jarrett music that E.S.T. does well but seems like it’s been heard too often before.
Folks who want to understand what the E.S.T fuss is about might focus on the two tracks at the center of the album: “Dolores in a Shoestand” and “Where We Used to Live”. “Dolores” begins from a stuttering ostinato groove, and it lets Svensson do what he is best at; starting from a cycle of lovely chords and a simple melody, he builds a rollicking solo that piles up the rhythmic excitement into a kind of celebration. After a return to the head, Svensson plays a long raggy tag over handclaps. “Where We Used to Live” is a straight acoustic track, a slow ballad that allows Svensson to play the long-rung chords of his left-hand against a spacious melody line. He wisely avoids too much of the gospel affectation that would make him sound like Keith Jarrett here (or, more pointedly, like Tord Gustavsen’s Jarrett imitation), and he focuses on playing a logical jazz solo. It’s not the same as hearing Bill Evans assay “My Romance”, but there is a clearer sense that the band is telling a story rather than merely accompanying one or letting the rocky sparks fly.
E.S.T.‘s considerable body of work is an accomplishment in today’s music economy. You can’t begrudge them their success, opening for k.d. lang in concert, making the cover of Downbeat, winning awards as European Jazz Band of the Year in 2004, and generally buzzing like mad with audiences for instrumental music. Plus: they look like some very cool badasses in the photos on their web site. Seriously.
But still, E.S.T., don’t go too arena-rock on me. Do you guys remember how dumb Chick Corea looked in the ‘80s when he had that stooopid keyboard-thingy strapped to his chest while playing with his Elektric Band? I remember, and I’m watching you.