by Stuart Nicholson
Pianist Esbjörn Svensson is not really surprised to see his trio become one of the most talked about jazz groups in Europe. "It's not by accident it is happening for us," he says with a smile, "We have been working very hard for it. It's taken us seven years of trying, we just concentrate on our music and it's beginning to pay off."
Modest, yet matter of fact, the thirty-six-year-old recently saw his latest album Good Morning Susie Soho shoot to 15 on the Pop Album Chart in his native Sweden, competing for sales alongside the likes of Radiohead, Maddona, Britney Spears and Pearl Jam.
Normally crossover fame in jazz prompts accusations—often well founded—of dumbing down, but Svensson is one of those rare musicians who dispenses the common touch without compromising his art. He avoids the usual jazz musician's stock-in-trade of cramming as many notes as he can into the square inch, favouring instead a darkly intense lyricism that meets at the intersection of sensuality and swing. There is an emotional honesty in his playing that can become a musical confessional as unsettling as it is profoundly moving, a vox humana that reaches over musical boundaries to touch people of all musical tastes.
The result has been a remarkable underground success across Europe, where the trio now play more than 200 concerts a year. "Naturally we get a lot of jazz lovers come to hear us," says Svensson, "but what is encouraging is that a lot of young people are interested in what we are doing." Since making their breakthrough across Europe in 1999 with the success of their album From Gagarin's Point of View they have been outselling the big American jazz names (who had come to regard European success as a right) at concerts and in terms of album sales.
"Everybody in Europe has always been so interested in what the Americans have been doing until now," says Svensson, "But I think the American jazz scene has become quite boring. I don't really understand why they play all this music in the way you've heard before—of course, some do it really well—but they have been playing that way for 40 years! I think we have some fantastic musicians in Europe playing more interesting jazz that's up to date. It's 2001 after all. I think it's time we started listening more to Europeans now."
And European audiences are beginning to do just that. Recently Svensson was cover feature on two major German jazz magazines and the long established French magazine Jazzman, was hailed by the German news weekly Der Spiegel as 'The Future of Jazz Piano' (with Brad Mehldau) and his album Good Morning Susie Soho was named Album of the Year in the end-of-year-poll conducted by the critics of the British magazine Jazzwise. And when the trio appeared briefly on BBC Radio 4, Neil Kinnock, former leader of the British Labour Party, was on the phone wanting to know where he could see them play.
Born into a music loving family, Svensson's mother was a classical pianist and his father loved Duke Ellington. After four years of musical study at the University of Stockholm, he quickly established an impressive reputation on the Swedish and Danish jazz scenes, forming his own trio in 1993. Voted Swedish Jazz Musician of the Year in 1995 and 1996, his performance on the album Winter In Venice earned a Swedish Grammy for Best Jazz Album of the Year in 1998.
His Europe-wide fame, however, came by through the unconventional route of signing with a rock label rather than a jazz label, "They know how to do good promotion. They are a pop company really, but they have been good for us," says Svensson. The result was that they became the first jazz group to appear on Sweden's MTV which brought them to the attention of a far wider audience than the usual jazz constituency, sowing the seeds of their broad appeal.
But mention how this appeal is reflected by their appearance in European style magazines like Scala and Stern and it is greeted by a shrug, "We set the highest standards for ourselves, and what anybody else thinks is secondary to what we do," Svensson says. "We work hard at creating a group identity. Most trios in jazz is a piano player with bass and drums and it's mostly the piano player you hear about. We are a little unusual, we work in a different way, we have a group sound which we work on, we only perform as a trio so that has made us close musical friends."
Unafraid to do the unexpected, the arresting rhythmic juxtapositions that open Good Morning Susie Soho or the sonic electronics swimming through "Last Letter from Lithuania" remain etched in the memory long after they have been played. Untroubled by our received notions about how a jazz piano trio is supposed to sound, they use a crafty mix of electronic and acoustic sounds but their originality of concept never obscures their profound lyricism.
Svensson renews the notion that the cutting edge can exist without necessarily inhabiting volatile experimentation. A sense-sharpening breeze of change, his trio give further evidence that European jazz is now no longer a pale imitation of what is happening in the United States. Instead, they raise the hitherto unimagined possibility of the vanguard of jazz no longer resting in its country of origin but moving to Europe. "It has seemed like it was going to happen for years," says Svensson, "I think now it is. Europe is going to be the place for jazz. We're ready now. We like to sound different."
Esbjörg Svensson's latest album Somewhere Else Before was released in August in the USA by Columbia/Sony, a compilation of *Good Morning Susie Soho and *From Gagarin's Point of View.
Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.
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