301 isn't the most daringly original Esbjörn Svensson Trio record, and nor is it their best record. Rather, it's a refinement of what we already knew and loved about the band.
Following Esbjörn Svensson’s tragic scuba diving accident in mid-2008, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t. to their pals) lost their pianist and bandleader. At the same time, the world of music lost a genuine innovator. Now, the word “innovator” is thrown about rather a lot these days. It’s used to describe charmingly geeky computer guys and it’s used to describe the pioneers of classical mechanics. In this sense, it’s not unlike some of the other rather scary euphemisms of this brave new hypermodern world – say, “connectivity” or “quantitative easing” – in that it’s become all too easily associated with making other peoples’ Big Decisions sound bigger and more decisive.
But Esbjörn Svensson was a real innovator: his towering achievement was to build on the already-sophisticated foundations of post-bop by adding the steely glaze of electronic sounds. To his credit, Esbjörn Svensson managed to make jazz music that was as accessible as it was challenging, and he neither sold his soul to “smooth jazz” nor fossilised himself under the weight of jazz fusion. And he pissed off a lot of jazz purists in the process. But isn't that what innovation is all about?
301 is a selection from the reels of material the band recorded during the sessions for their 2008 album Leucocyte. However, each and every one of the seven tracks on offer here is a spur-of-the-moment improvised piece. The three of them entered the studio without any proper plans – with the intention to just play – so one gets little sense that this is Leucocyte Part II. But inevitably, and rather obviously, 301 shares some of its atmosphere and ambience. It reproduces the opaque progressivism of things like Leucocyte’s “Premonition: Earth” on “Houston, The 5th” and “Three Falling Free Part II” but, then again, things like opener “Behind The Stars” and closer “The Childhood Dream” actually sound like advanced versions of things that we’ve already heard from e.s.t. (particularly "Ballad For The Unborn" and "O.D.R.I.P" from 2004's Seven Days of Falling). And this prompts us to ask three questions about 301. First, is it the most daring or original record the band have produced? No, it isn’t. Second, it the band’s best record? Nope. Third, does it give anybody listening to the band for the first time a “way in” to listening to them? Certainly not. No, what 301 really offers us is an enrichment and a refinement of the group’s existing sound so, in a rather nerdy way, we can compare it with the rest of the e.s.t. canon.
Take, for instance, what 301 tells us about the evolution of e.s.t.’s embrace of electronica – and, by extension, what the gizmos of the 21st century bring to the atmosphere of piano jazz. 301’s “Inner City, City Light” is a perfect example of a typical e.s.t. use of electronics. In fact, it’s a kind of serious, studious older sister song to “Serenade for the Renegade” (from 2002’s Strange Place for Snow). Both tracks share a slow pace, a brooding atmosphere, and a structure that constantly builds tension without ever releasing it.
On the electronic front, both tracks see Svensson’s piano subjected to a fair amount of reverb while being underpinned by a single droning sound that offers the piece a tonal centre as a mournful counterpart to Dan Berglund’s sturdy bass. On “Serenade for the Renegade”, this drone takes the form of a warped, gnarled double-bass (in fact, it sounds a bit like a ruined cello) that grinds out a context for Svensson’s elegant piano to fill out the space. But on “Inner City, City Light”, we’re confronted by a single subtle, but totally inescapable, synth drone. It’s almost choral, and giving Svensson’s delayed, ringing, digitally distorted piano a silken, fleshy overcoat. That distortion is subtle, too, but it still manages to compromise the perfectibility of the piano, which gives the whole track a rather peculiar, eerie air.
301 also gives us the opportunity to have a good look at the role played by virtuoso drummer Magnus Öström. Behold 301’s epic “Three Falling Three Part II”. For the opening few minutes, before he’s joined by his bandmates, we hear Öström soloing – the drums clatters away as he thrashes out at his cymbals, doing drum rolls at any and every opportunity, paying particular attention to the neatly textured toms. But then, from around the third minute, Öström bashes out a furious, gyrating attack on the toms for the remainder of the song. Now, it would be a touch too easy to compare his performance here with the repetitive, almost mechanical breakbeats he played on “Dodge The Dodo” (from From Gagarin’s Point of View) or his hyperactive warp-speed drumming on the terrifyingly good, and stone-cold e.s.t. classic, “Behind The Yashmak” (from 2002’s Strange Place for Snow). But it's difficult not to do exactly that. While those two tracks are dead serious attempts to introduce contemporary electronic beats to post-bop (sounding like turn-of-the-century trip-hop and octupus-limbed jungle respectively), on “Three Falling Free Part II”, Öström acts as a stable core for the freeform piano work and Berglund’s buzzing, squealing synth bass rather than a an axis for genre cross-pollination. The moment he stops playing, the music stops, leaving us with a void – a barren wasteland of broken instruments, the only breeze a gale of feedback.
Ultimately, 301 doesn’t offer us anything new. It's preaching to the converted, reminding us why we loved e.s.t. in the first place, so it ain't going to win the band any new fans. After all, there aren’t really any of the melodious emotional highs that you can find throughout the band’s other records. And even 301’s most straight-ahead offering, “The Left Lane” is really a return to the sound of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio of the mid-1990s. Like that early work, “The Left Lane” is basically just a classy, rather introspective, but, yes, innovative take on certain pre-existing piano jazz conventions: Svensson’s elegant, impressionistic technique fleshing out the rhythm section’s robust post-bop skeleton. But, then, let’s be honest with ourselves. We shall have to face up to the fact that if the only criticism of 301 is that it’s a little bit disjointed, acting like a sketchpad that builds on beloved e.s.t. blueprints, then it just affirms how great they were in the first place, doesn’t it?