Damn … damn!
That’s the kind of reaction I have when hearing an artist who left us with still a lot remaining to give. And so it is for the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s second posthumous release, 301. The rapidly ascending career of Esbjörn Svensson and his e.s.t. combo, as we’ve known, was suddenly snuffed out when Svensson’s lifeless body was found by his scuba diving companions at the bottom of the sea not far from Stockholm, Sweden.
That was over four years ago, but before that mishap, e.s.t. made some recordings during a break in the Australian leg of a Pacific Rim tour, in Sydney’s famed Studio 301. From those two-day jam sessions came Leucocyte, already a finished product at the time of Svensson’s death and released just a few months afterwards. But Svensson’s intention was to produce another album — or a second disc for Leucocyte — with the material culled from those in-the-studio jam sessions. It took another three years before surviving members Dan Berglund (double bass) and Magnus Öström (drums) were ready to go through the painful process of pouring over the tapes and perform the crucial final editing and mixing along with e.s.t.’s regular sound engineer Ake Linton (who applied many of the effects live through the sound board while the band jammed in the studio). Though these final steps were typically handled by the leader, e.s.t. had been together since 1993 and Linton had been on board since 2000; it’s not hard to imagine that the musical vision portrayed on 301 stayed very close to what Svensson would had done if he were still alive.
Like all e.s.t. records, especially the most recent ones, 301 is at an odd juncture somewhere between Brad Mehldau and Bugge Wesseltoft. However, by this time the band had established a signature sound that was actually succeeding in attracting young fans of indie rock, electronica and post-rock to perhaps not quite straight jazz, but to a music where all its percepts are present…a significant accomplishment no one else of the current generation save for perhaps Medeski, Martin and Wood and the Bad Plus have come close to accomplishing.
The album begins and ends innocently enough: both “Behind The Stars” and “The Childhood Dream” are minimalist almost to the point of bearing the influence of Steve Reich as much as it does Bill Evans, but dig deep enough into both and you’ll uncover some gorgeous, pop-like melodies. Sandwiched between the opener and closer is a wild ride that reveals the unpredictable ebb and flow of songs created on the spot, made more so by the interesting use of electronic effects. “Inner City, City Lights” lumbers along a groove like a half speed Nik Bärtsch/Ronin. An electronic drone emerges, sounding like a ritualistic chant, and a few other unnatural buzzes and distortions swirl around, but the core of the song remains firmly emanating from a very together acoustic jazz trio, building up the definition of the song at a natural pace. e.s.t. here, as elsewhere, is masterful in crafting songs that start in subconscious and migrate ever so discreetly to consciousness.
“The Left Lane” dispenses with effects but has its own charms. Svensson riffs off a sharpened ostinato, as his perky rhythm section feed off of his variations and Berglund’s bass gets increasingly muscular. A Keith Jarrett type of groove, the pianist even vocalizes over his piano lines like Jarrett at one point. “Houston, The 5th” is a segue of spacey noises, which evaporates into the solemn piano ruminations that begin “Three Falling Free Part I” and is also where Öström’s subtly preeminent handling of the drums is most evident. Beginning with the gentle rustling around Svensson’s free flow of melodic ideas, his rustling soon grows into a full-fledged drum solo full of inventive ways to exploit the tonalities of his kit at the beginning of “Three Falling Free Part II.”
But that’s only the beginning for this epic moment of the album. Svensson intrudes on the solo, playing piano like an additional percussion instrument and creating a vamp that Berglund picks up and uses as a basis for creating a fuzzy bass pattern. That effects-laden standup bass gradually assumes heavy metal guitar role, as Öström has already settled into playing a spirited jungle rock beat. Feedback begins to dominate and the piano is even tinged with overdriven buzz. This little jazz trio soon becomes a show-stopping rock band, reaching a rousing climatic arc about thirteen minutes in. And it was all essentially created out of thin air.
Whether this ends up being the true coda of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s main discography or not, 301 would surely be considered a very worthy entry in the e.s.t. catalog even if Esbjörn Svensson were with us today and this innovative trio had gone on to higher heights. And on realizing this, all I can say is, damn.
301 was released on May 8, by ACT Records.
feature photo by Matthias Edwall