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Svensson, Esbjörn

Pianist Esbjörn Svensson loosened the borders between jazz, rock and pop, and in doing so attracted younger listeners. The pianist's trio, e.s.t., formed with fellow Swedes Dan Berglund on bass and Magnus Öström on drums, achieved widespread popularity and was reaching a creative peak in 2008 when he died unexpectedly in a diving accident.

 Esbjörn Svensson, by Jos L. Knaepen

Svensson was born on April 16, 1964 and grew up in the town of Skultuna, just north of the city of Västeras in central Sweden. His mother was an amateur classical pianist, and his father frequently listened to classic jazz recordings by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, among others. His father was also a cousin of pianist Gunnar Svensson, who played with Charlie Parker on the bebop legend’s tour of the country in November 1950.

Musically, Svensson enjoyed pop bands from Britain in his youth, such as The Sweet and The Slave. In particular, The Sweet’s recording of “Ballroom Blitz” had a strong influence on him as a teenager. As his interest in music grew, Esbjörn’s father arranged for his cousin to visit the boy, and expose him to a broader range of music during a period when his curiosity was turning towards the jazz repertoire. Other than this brief encounter, Svensson’s only other jazz teacher was the Polish pianist Jerzy Lisewski, with whom he studied while in high school.

Early on, Svensson took a liking to the solo piano records of Keith Jarrett, such as The Köln Concert and Facing You, as well as fusion works by Chick Corea, and Swedish piano virtuoso Bengt Hallberg. During his teenage years, he experimented often with his friend and neighbor Magnus Öström, who had received a drum set and brought it over to show Svensson. The two began playing drums, an instrument that Svensson was later quoted as saying he would have preferred over the piano.

Svensson and Öström first played pop music together, until Svensson moved to Stockholm to attend the Royal College of Music. He struggled at first due to a lack of music reading proficiency, and a desire to continue exploring rock music. Recognizing that the jazz piano instructor at the college was not a good fit, Svensson asked to be assigned a new teacher, eventually opting for a classical music degree. He became devoted to piano repertoire by Bach, and developed a formidable technique. During his studies, he also became the pupil of veteran trumpeter and composer/arranger Bengt-Arne Wallin.

Related Links

•   Remembering Esbjörn Svensson (1964-2008) by Stuart Nicholson                                                
•   The Dozens: Twelve Essential Esbjörn Svensson Tracks by David Tenenholtz                                                

During college, Svensson freelanced in Sweden and continued to cut his teeth playing jazz standards. When he graduated, he found work with Danish musicians Mats Winding and Alex Riel. In addition to gaining acceptance within the Danish music scene, he worked with one of Sweden’s most heralded drummers, Egil Johansen, for about a year.

In 1985, he landed a steady gig with a hard bop quintet led by drummer Fredrik Norén. But after a few years of playing straight-ahead jazz, Svensson was fed up with the jazz world's prejudices against rock and pop music, which had consistently inspired him.

Many jazz aficionados felt rock and pop had less to do with musicianship and creativity than with money and fame. He balked when his would-be mentors in the jazz world likened jazz music to a religion whose purity had to be preserved. Svensson chose instead to focus on pop songwriting, and he collaborated with various musical acts, at times appearing on Swedish television singing, playing synthesizers and electric piano.

By the end of the 1980s, Svensson was bored with these activities away from actively playing in a consistent ensemble setting. After Magnus Öström finished school at the Royal College in Stockholm, the pair reunited in 1990 and began playing again. For three years, the duo experimented, and sought out a variety of bass players to complete their sound. They absorbed the sound of classic Bill Evans Trio, and developed their approach in a way that mimicked the mood of many of that group's recordings.

In 1993, Svensson and Öström auditioned bassist Dan Berglund, who was then in the Fredrik Norén jazz group. Berglund’s solid foundations in jazz as well as his love for Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and other contemporary rock bands intensified the idea that the trio could build itself around a group sound that had a hybrid identity. Before long, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio became “e.s.t.” and marketed itself as “a pop band that plays jazz.” Within a year, the trio released their debut album on the Swedish label Dragon Records, entitled When Everyone Has Gone.

After e.s.t.’s first record came out, the band switched to the Swedish Diesel label, and was produced by Johan Ekelund, who had more of a pop and rock sensibility. In 1995, they recorded another album called Mr. and Mrs. Handkerchief, which was later reissued as E.S.T. Live ’95 on Prophone/ACT. In 1997, the trio released Winter in Venice only in Sweden, which won the Swedish Grammy for Best Jazz Album the following year. They also backed Swedish jazz vocalist Viktoria Tolstoy on the Blue Note album White Russian, which Svensson also produced.

Following these albums, e.s.t. recorded a repertoire project of Thelonious Monk’s music entitled E.S.T. Plays Monk for Diesel. Subsequently, the trio made it onto their first magazine cover, Sweden's Om Jazz. However, the band was struggling with their producer Ekelund, who saw jazz as more of an acoustic music. The trio was aiming at using guitar pedals and other modifications on each of their instruments to achieve wide-ranging effects. Svensson himself began using prepared piano techniques and slides on the strings.

At the same time, Svensson continued to perform and record with The Swedish Radio Jazz Group and with trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren’s Funk Unit. He appeared on the Radio Jazz Group's album A Swedish Tribute to Duke in 1995, and met his idol Bengt Hallberg in the studio on these sessions, which included "Sorrow is the Birth of Joy."

In 1996, Svensson was honored with the Swedish Grammy for Best Jazz Musician. Working steadily as a member of Nils Landgren’s Funk Unit, he appeared on the albums Paint It Blue, which included the track "You Dig" in 1997 and 5000 Miles in 1999, as well as an album by Landgren called Ballads, all for the German ACT Music + Vision label.

Expanding their collaboration, Svensson and Landgren recorded a duet album of Swedish folk music in 1998 called Swedish Folk Modern.That same year, Svensson was awarded the Swedish Grammy for Best Composer.

Landgren’s relationship with the ACT label helped to eventually get e.s.t. out of the solely Swedish market. When the contract with Diesel was over, Svensson fulfilled a promise he had made to Siggi Loch, the founder and owner of ACT, and the trio signed with them. In 1999, the album From Gagarin’s Point of View was released, which marked the start of e.s.t.’s breakthrough on international charts.

The album, which included the track "Dating," brought the group to the attention of overseas audiences, and they began to play at European festivals like JazzBaltica and Montreux, as well as in larger rock venues, concert halls, and churches. They mixed acoustic instrumental jazz sensibilities with outside flavors from house, trip-hop, classic rock, and funk, which made for a fresh sound that was accessible to audiences less versed in jazz. Shows often involved lighting effects, fog machines, and their own sound engineer, Åke Linton, whose consistency in delivering the trio’s sound regardless of venue garnered him praise as the “fourth member of the band.”

Following the success of Gagarin, the band released Good Morning Susie Soho in 2000, which earned them an Album of the Year award from the U.K.'s Jazzwise magazine. In 2001, the trio broke into the U.S. market with a single CD released by Columbia collection which anthologized music selected from these two albums.

The Columbia album, entitled Somewhere Else Before, also helped the trio a three-week tour in the U.S. the following year, but without the proper support and publicity from Columbia. The album also included a bonus track, "Untitled Hidden Track," which in four minutes and forty-four seconds of metal-inspired thrashing demonstrated how far the band's concept had evolved away from straight-ahead jazz.

Back home, Svensson continued to collaborate with Landgren in a duo setting, and released an amalgam of traditional Swedish folk songs, such as "Hopsi," as well as original compositions on an album called Layers of Light in 2001). By this time, Svensson was only a guest in Nils Landgren’s Funk Unit, and appeared on three tracks of the group's Fonk Da World in 2001.

E.s.t.'s 2002 tour of the U.S. was unsuccessful, but the group forged ahead with new album projects. Columbia released Strange Place for Snow, which included "When God Created the Coffeebreak," won awards from Jazzman magazine in France, Germany's National Critics Award and The Guinness Jazz in Europe Award. The group began to sell out large-scale European venues, thanks in part to their partnership with a savvy new tour manager, Burkhard Hopper, who specialized in breaking emerging artists into new markets through heavy touring.

Pat Metheny was impressed with e.s.t.’s concept, and in 2003 the guitarist collaborated in performance with them at the JazzBaltica festival, where he served as artist in residence. For k.d. lang’s North American tour, the trio served as opening act. Afterwards, Columbia and e.s.t. ended their relationship, at which point Columbia signed the American trio The Bad Plus. In Sweden, the release of e.s.t.’s 2003 record Seven Days of Falling garnered an Album of the Year award from The Times in the U.K. However, limited exposure led the disc to later be packaged by 215 Records with a bonus DVD of the trio performing at the club Nalen, entitled Live in Stockholm.

Svensson was starting to earn praise, both at home and abroad, as an innovative composer. In 2004, Viktoria Tolstoy released an album, Shining on You, for ACT, with music composed for her by Svensson. The following year, she released an album of tributes to Swedish jazz musicians entitled My Swedish Heart, which included two more Svensson originals, "Dialogue" and “The Morning of You.”

In January of 2005, the e.s.t. album Viaticum, which included the tracks "The Unstable Table and the Infamous Fable" and "Tide of Trepidation" hit the stores in Germany and other parts of Europe. In the same year, Svensson made another guest appearance on a Nils Landgren album, this one being Sentimental Journey, playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano. The trio also collaborated on a studio rendering of Swedish poet Kristina Lugn’s works. The album was called “Jag vill aldrig mer vara ful och ensam” (“I don’t ever want to be ugly and alone again”) and came out on ACT.

In 2006, e.s.t. became the first foreign band to grace the cover of Down Beat magazine. The trio then out another concept album, called Tuesday Wonderland. Based initially on The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach, the album was eventually reconstructed to be less overly-composed. Svensson’s determination to write a series of preludes and fugues for jazz trio wound up, through the aid of his bandmates, turning into a more generally contrasting album, full of the imaginative jazz odysseys for which the trio was becoming known. The album included "Where We Used to Live," "Eighthundred Streets by Feet" and “Goldwrap,” which was featured on Swedish MTV in a new video by the group.

After Wonderland, the trio continued to tour extensively, and by the end of the year, had recorded a live album from Hamburg, Germany. This was to be the final release of e.s.t. before Svensson's tragic and untimely death of Svensson at the age of 44. He was injured while scuba diving in Ingarö, on the Swedish archipelago, and could not be saved after members of the diving squad found his body at the bottom. He is survived by his wife Eva and by sons Ruben and Noah.

Svensson's legacy as a multifaceted and gifted musician will no doubt supply the jazz world with added attention and appreciation for a long time to come. Since his death, ACT has planned the posthumous release of a freely improvised session by the trio, entitled Leukocyte.

Contributor: David Tenenholtz