The grisly truth is that the remarkable jazz trio known as E.S.T. is no more. Esbjorn Svensson, the Swedish pianist and leader, died in June of this year in a scuba accident at 44. The Esbjorn Svensson Trio’s 12th and final album, however, remains. Leucocyte is a fitting legacy for a group that consistently pushed jazz boundaries.
Before Brad Mehldau was recording jazzed-up Radiohead and well before the Bad Plus was bashing its way through avant-pop treatments of Nirvana, E.S.T. was bringing the progressive to the jazz trio. Formed in the early 1990s with bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Oström, E.S.T. quickly set about to expand the range of a traditional jazz trio to include elements of rock, classical composition, and European electronic music.
The band hit right away in Scandanavia, then made its mark in the U.S. some years later, even becoming the first European jazz group to be featured on the cover of Downbeat. Live shows could be mesmerizing, hypnotic, and loud. Sometimes they played in a style reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, but at other times they were seeking a more textural experimentation.
Leucocyte takes the textural and experimental element of E.S.T. to a new extreme. The record is a result of two days of jam sessions in a studio in Australia, which jams were then turned into this series of distorted and frenetic soundscapes. The music indeed sounds like the product of a series of jams, a dangerous procedure in most cases. Here, it rather works.
On Leucocyte, E.S.T. blends acoustic and electronic sounds with an organic persuasiveness. The sounds develop over time, flowing and morphing slowly rather than presenting set themes upon which the musicians improvise. There are no “tunes” in the usual sense, composed melodies that are played in a set manner at the beginning and end of each performance. These tunes, including two sets of connected suites, are moving portraits or travelogues.
The short “Decade” is all-acoustic, a fragment of a ballad that merely sets the table for a two-part suite called “Premonition”. Berglund’s ripe acoustic bass sound dominates the soundscape for three minutes, playing choice variations on a funky bass groove, then Svensson begins to emerge, playing (and singing/moaning, Keith Jarrett-style) with a distorted echo effect that sets the first half (“Earth”) across some imaginary black-tinged desert. Oström plays the groove on unusual percussion surfaces, played back with a dry post-production sound at the start. Eventually, however, the electronics wax and wane as the trio plays harder and louder, providing a sense of motion and dynamism that climaxes in an aggressive drum pattern slathered with electronic noise. The second half (“Contorted”) is a lyrical and slow Latin groove of aching beauty that is littered with now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t synthesized distortion that plays as a counterpoint to the acoustic trio. The three tunes, together, do not share a set of themes as much as they seem like a single, compelling journey.
The trio also tries its hand at a four-part suite, “Leucocyte”, that is the most abstract and bracingly distorted music it has ever made. To my ears, this is a more tedious ride than “Premonition”. The sounds it harnesses are more blatantly derived from rock or “minimalist” classical music, with repetition and texture being more at the center of the music. “Ab Initio” begins the suite with an assault of samples and aggressive drumming. Svensson plays less like a pianist than an orchestra conductor, laying out distorted keyboard parts that form walls of sound over the drums. Part two, “Ad Interim”, is exactly one minute of total silence. (Feel free to find this blessed or pretentious: your call.) Which is followed by a section, “Ad Mortem”, in which keyboard phrases alternate with either a bass ostinato or squiggling synth figures. Patches of static and distortion form a kind of rhythm, but the feeling is that of experimental classical music rather than jazz. And at 13 minutes, it will test your patience. As it settles into “Ad Infinitum”, more pleasing acoustic sounds ring through in a kind of looped repetition. The composition owes much more to Gyorgy Ligeti than to Keith Jarrett.
For me, this is refreshing if not always easy or fun listening. E.S.T. could have continued making contemplative or gospel-tinged acoustic jazz in the Jarrett/ECM mode (the brief “Ajar” here is a fine example), but Svensson and his group have been frying bigger fish from the start. When they recorded Leucocyte, of course, they had no idea this would their legacy record. But it does seem fair to imagine that Svensson had every intention of continuing to push E.S.T. toward the edges of its appeal rather than back to the center. So, on the E.S.T. website, the featured video is a an experimental video set to the first portion of the “Leucocyte” suite, with maximum distortion and intensity being the point, right up front. Yes, the music still has a Scandinavian sense of the withdrawn, but it also has no use for decorum.
E.S.T.’s last recording is music meant not to summarize or clarify but to explore. For fans of this daring trio—or rather for fans of this trio at its most daring—the group’s last record may be one never to forget.