Esbjorn Svensson

The news of Esbjorn Svensson’s death in a diving accident on Saturday, June 14, 2008, was sad beyond words. Svensson’s trio, e.s.t., reached beyond the jazz audience although his luminous, jewel-like compositions fulfill the jazz criteria and always pack surprise. The occasion was the 2007 UK tour to promote the then current album, Tuesday Wonderland. A version of the interview was filed to Metro newspaper. Dateline, 13.3.07.

MB: Hello, Esbjorn, it’s Mike. How’s it going? You’re in Spain at the moment...

ES: We’ve just been in Spain, and we just came home a few days ago.

MB: Ohhh.

ES: It was great. Beautiful weather.

MB: OK. This is Sweden is it?

ES: This is Stockholm, yes.

MB: I was going to ask you about the new album. You seem to have reached a plateau of perfection with Tuesday Wonderland. But I’ve read some critics say that a formula is beginning to creep in. Is this fair?

ES: I guess they’re right. Of course we’ve recorded ten albums and there will be some recognisable patterns under the surface. That also has to do with our personalities. That’s also what makes our music personal - that you actually can hear more or less immediately that it’s e.s.t. Of course it has to do with the way we’re playing and the way we produce our albums and the way I compose the music. I don’t think it’s bad just because it’s recognisable. it’s just something that always comes with...

MB: Familiarity?

ES: Yeah absolutely, and when you do lots of things. We’ve recorded ten albums. There is a typical e.s.t. sound and a typical e.s.t. approach to the music that you recognise.

MB: So it’s really unfair to expect you to reinvent yourselves? Especially as you’ve got a large audience for the e.s.t. sound.

ES: I don’t like the definition of reinventing yourself. Does it mean that you have to play totally different? In different styles? The thing is, we’ve found something in ourselves that we’re just bringing out. We’re trying to play ourselves. That’s what we’re doing, and of course it’s recognisable. You can’t really look for new things all the time. I don’t think that’s interesting. What you should look for is good music, harmony, a good way of... I mean, harmony inside yourselves. You’re able to relax and just let the music out. That it’s natural to not struggle maybe. Maybe for some people that’s not interesting. That’s fine. For us, we’ve reached the point where we’re actually playing ourselves in a much larger way than we ever did before.

MB: Part of the e.s.t. appeal is that fantastic empathy you’ve got. Is it necessary to play together for a long, long time to achieve that?

ES: I don’t know. I think in e.s.t. it has been necessary to know each other for being able to play the way we do. It might very well happen that you meet someone and just play one show and everything happens in that moment while playing for the first time. it depends so much. The hard thing is to able to keep the inspiration and improvisation, to be able to play exciting music for us, still after fourteen years. That is something that I should say I’m surprised by. It’s fascinating that it still works.

MB: Now that you’ve hit your stride is there any reason why you should stop?

ES: I don’t know. There might be reasons for coming to a stop, and then I guess we have to follow. But so far, as I said, we’re not trying to do that much. We’re trying to relax, trying to play what feels natural to us. We’re just trying to follow the music. And while it’s working,. that’s fine. There might be several reasons to go different ways in the future. If those possibilities appear we will definitely follow them. If they really come from the music and not from people criticising us, telling us to do other things. That’s not really the meaning for us. We always did what we felt was right and what feels natural for us. I think that’s what we should try and continue to do.

MB: You’ve talked about recognisable patterns and part of your signature sound is the steady build of tension and then the final release. And then the juxtaposition of unexpected elements, like in Fading Maid Preludium when you start with a pretty Bach-like counterpoint harmony and then shove in a bombastic riff. It makes me jump everytime. Do you take delight in confounding your listeners’ expectations? Do you set traps to keep listeners on their toes?

ES: We always mainly think about ourselves and how we want things to be. We just like, taking that example, Fading Maid, we just like the idea of having me play what I did and then having the band coming in, like it was a total surprise even for me. I told them not to show any sign to me when they were coming in, just to start playing wherever they want to. So even I got surprised. Of course then, when we recorded it and when we were listening to it, we realised, yeah, this is great. We liked it. Then we started to think about how would people react to this, because it’s such a big contrast from the piano to when the bass and drums appear. We just found it interesting. We wanted to play it for the people and see. If they like it, they like it. If not, not.

MB: Have you road-tested the songs on Tuesday Wonderland?

ES: Have we done what?

MB: Have you played them in front of a live audience a lot, or is that the point of this tour?

ES: We’ve played them quite a lot now. I mean, not before the recording but after the recording we have been touring a couple of countries so the music has been played quite a lot. And some of the songs are taking new, or little bit different directions, compared to the recording, but it’s still very recognisable, I think, from the album.

MB: Does that happen quite a lot? Do things happen to a composition in perfornance?

ES: When you record an album, it’s like when a child is born. A little bit like that. And then when the child is growing and changing; maybe not changing, the personality is probably there all the time, but is growing up and at least for people around, the child is maybe changing, being older. It’s a little bit the same with music. When the music was recorded it’s like it was born. Then it continues living. It’s not a static thing. The music is constantly changing, and we allow the tunes to change if they want to change. Which is something we figure while playing them, live, for an audience.

MB: Are there certain key tunes which you’ll always play, no matter how old they are?

ES: There’s a couple of tunes, yes, that have stayed with us for many, many years. We play The Rube Thing, which is a very old tune which I dedicated to my son when he was one year old and he is now thirteen, so that tune has been with us for twelve years. There is actually one older tune that we sometimes play, Hands Off, from our very, very first album. There are some tracks we never take away from the repertoire. But we try mainly to play tunes from Tuesday Wonderland and then we mix it up with things, older stuff that we choose.

MB: Is that an argument for a live album, so we can hear how a tune has changed and developed?

ES: I think so. I’ve always wanted to make a live album but there are many people who should say their opinions. There are many of us in the band, and our manager and so on. I very much would like to release a live album. We’ll see about it. [In fact, the next release was the 2 CD set, Live in Hamburg.] Also we’ve made a DVD. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?

MB: No, I haven’t.

ES: Maybe that’s the way we want to present the live material, also with visuals... Because the live DVD was recorded, I think, 2000, and shows us in a very good way. Maybe there will be another DVD.

MB: It fulfills the same job. It’s a document.

ES: Absolutely. Plus it’s a very good live documentary and you get the visuals as well.

MB: That’s another e.s.t. trademark, isn’t it? The visuals?

ES: Absolutely. The music is the foundation but I think when you go to see a live performance it’s actually not only about listening, it’s about what you see, it’s about what you feel, it’s the whole room. It’s so many things. You have to take as much as you can into consideration when you’re meeting an audience to make a good performance.

MB: That’s the total antithesis of the usual jazz attitude, which says it’s all in the music and anything else is secondary. Are you a real jazz group or perhaps a prog-rock group in disguise?

ES: Of course we love jazz, but we’ve grown up with rock ‘n’ roll as well. We’re also interested in classical music and all different kinds of music. I think you’re right. We’re definitely not a puristic jazz band. We’re as much an alternative rock band. If you see it from that point of view, I think we’re quite dynamic for a rock band [laughs].

MB: That’s right. But the temperament. The way emotion simmers and then spills over into euphoria. That’s more common in rock ‘n’ roll than jazz. Is that why you’re the only so-called jazz group in Europe to regularly feature in the pop charts?

ES: Maybe. For the last albums we’ve been selling lots of CDs for a jazz band. If you do that you appear on the charts.

MB: Well done. What’s the function of the hidden track on e.s.t. albums?

ES: I think the hidden track is a little bit like... You can see it in many ways. But the whole album... we want to present the whole thing, not only different tunes. If you listen to our albums from the very beginning to the end, it’s the whole thing. It’s more like a book with different chapters. But then it’s always interesting... The album is what people expect to hear but then to give them a little break and then to say something completely different. To add something: oh,what are they going to say now? It’s like a postludium. Like you’re telling a whole book and there is a story and everything and then right after you’re saying, but maybe all this is wrong.

MB: e.s.t. in a parallel universe.

ES: Yeah, with e.s.t. we do a lot of different stuff and sometimes it’s hard to fit everything in on an album. We really want to make our album as a whole thing, and by using this hidden track we can sometimes put in things that we really couldn’t really fit into the album schedule. Therefore it works that way as well. You can also compare it to a live performance. We’re playing a whole show, and that’s it, people are applauding, and then we give a little encore. it’s also a way of finding new ways of using the CD. Because you have to find ways of making a piece of art out of the CD. It’s just a piece of plastic otherwise. This is a way of trying to find interesting ways of using the CD as a platform for art.

MB: And you have a great talent for whimsical titles.

ES: That’s Magnus. I am the composer of the music, and then we arrange it and play it together, and then Magnus is the title maker. We always discuss his ideas and say what we think about them, but he is the one. He’s a little poet in that sense.

MB: Well Esbjorn, I think that will me nicely.

ES: Wonderful.


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