Remembering Esbjorn Svensson

22 June 2008

Photograph by Tasic Dragan

There are rare times when the obituary pages stop you dead, as it were. So it was this week with the news of the death of the Swedish jazz pianist Esbjorn Svensson in a diving accident at the age of 44. A few days on, I feel as if there ought to be more of a fuss, that the gap his death will leave in European jazz (and jazz generally) ought to be more commented upon. (There are good articles at All About Jazz and by Sam Christie on the Guardian music blog). As the British poet Adrian Mitchell said of a different early death, “And God killed little Lenny Bruce/ And let Bob Hope survive”.

I first heard EST, as the trio became known, about a decade ago, at the time of what I think was their fourth record, From Gagarin’s Point of View (they always had great titles). It included the mesmerising Dodge the Dodo, a mix of driving ostinato, wailing bass improvisation in a long middle break, and a catchy melody, an urgent sound which suddenly gives way to something slower, reflective, almost religious. I’m listening to a live version as I write this. It was clear that this was jazz – but played by people who were as interested in the music of Hendrix and the Velvets and other experimentalists. (When I went to see them in London a few years ago, a friend who plays piano quite well explained that the chromatic scales Svensson was using gave him a sound which was strikingly different from the blues-based sound of conventional jazz, although I’m not technically knowledgeable enough to be sure that I have this completely right).

I used to be something of a musical completist with groups that I liked, but as I’ve got older I’ve not felt the need. With EST I made an exception, because I knew each new record would be interesting enough, and different enough, from the last one to be worthwhile.

If you stumble on this, and want to start somewhere, try Seven Days of Falling (2004), the sound of a group which has been together long enough, and has become technically expert enough, to be confident in pushing at the edges: as David Mamet said of film directing, “The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.”

The photograph is by Tasic Dragan.

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