On a warm night in May, 2006 e.s.t., which had begun life as the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, played Lyon, the third largest city in France. For the past two or three years the group, with Dan Berglund on bass and Magnus Öström on drums, had been creating a rising buzz of excitement wherever they played in Europe. Standing ovations, countless encores and wild applause had become common. But this particular night it all seemed to come to a head.
As the group walked onstage it was as if the clock had been turned back to the days of Beatle-mania. Young girls in the audience of over 1,500 people, and there were plenty, burst out screaming. The rest of the audience were whistling, shouting, stamping and applauding. The noise was deafening. And they hadn’t even played a note of music.
e.s.t. were finally entering the big time. Years of constant touring — 100 to 200 gigs a year was not uncommon — were finally paying off and there was a universal belief among those involved in the European jazz economy that it could not have happened to three nicer or more hard working guys. They were praised for their professionalism, their unfailing punctuality, their cheerful disposition whatever the circumstances (things can and do go wrong at festivals), their rapport with audiences, and their willingness to stay on after concerts for as long as it took signing autographs and making new friends.
They had come a long way since their album live ’95, when as unknowns outside their native Sweden they were recorded performing during a tour of small towns such as Möndal, Nyköping, Uppsala and Århus where Svensson even plays an upright piano on two tracks. But even then the trio, which had been formed three years earlier, had already begun to forge a collective voice, a hallmark of their style.
It’s probably fair to say the success of e.s.t. may have taken some outside the jazz economy by surprise – such as the mainstream media who were forced to sit up and take notice at the remarkable success of a jazz group – but the one person who never had any doubt the band would make it was Esbjörn Svensson.
A dynamic and immensely personable young man, he was classical graduate of the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, who quickly established himself on the Swedish jazz scene as a rising star. His early influences were Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett (from his Facing You period) and, just as important, yet seldom commented, were the influence of local heroes Bengt Hallberg and the visionary pianist Jan Johansson. Underpinning it all was his love and affinity for classical music – indeed, e.s.t’s 2006 album Tuesday Wonderland was inspired by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.
Svensson’s compositions often had more in common with the structure of contemporary pop tunes than the American Popular Song. Many contained beautiful, almost sensuous melodies that were imbued with the pensive melancholy of the Nordic Tone, an important if largely misunderstood, voice within jazz.
A couple of years experience playing in pop and rock bands before he formed e.s.t. taught him the value of presentation, and from the very beginning they made financial sacrifices to carry sound engineer Åke Linton (known as the fourth member of the trio) with them whenever they could. Lighting was also an important consideration at their concerts, and a lighting engineer was added to their entourage when finances permitted. “Some musicians think standing in front of a microphone in a white spotlight is all that you need, and that’s okay. Not for us though,” said Svensson.
When the group signed with Siggi Loch’s ACT label and Burkhard Hopper became their manager, e.s.t. began to take off following the release of Gargarin’s Point of View in 1999. With fresh, original material and imaginative presentation, the group began to win fans beyond the usual jazz constituency. As they built a broadly based fan base in Europe, the buzz surrounding them began to spread to the United States.
In 2002 they embarked on a three week tour of the US which was followed in 2003 by a tour playing support for k. d. lang. Subsequently, they toured annually, prompting Downbeat magazine to proclaim in a bold 2006 headline that Europe Invades: “The Esbjörn Svensson Trio Leads The Breakthrough Of New, Adventurous Jazz Musicians Coming From Across The Pond.” It was the first time in Downbeat’s entire 72 year history that a European jazz group had featured on their cover.
On 21 June 2008, e.s.t. was due to make a widely anticipated appearance headlining the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. At 44, Svensson’s trio had accomplished so much yet now seemed poised to repeat the kind of breakthrough they had achieved among European audiences in America. One of the most influential artists in recent jazz history, a new album Leucocyte had been completed and plans were already in hand for extensive touring to support its release, but sadly a diving accident claimed Svensson’s life on 14 June 2008. A devoted family man, he was survived by his wife and two young sons.