Esbjorn Svensson Trio: Live at Dakota Jazz Club
This was the Swedish group's first ever appearance in the Twin Cities, and the small turnout of about 75 patrons suggested that many local jazz fans have yet to be hipped to what EST is doing. Their loss; the band turned in two stunning sets that had the audience cheering with astonished delight, and it's fair to assume that those lucky enough to be there have been singing EST's praises ever since.
On record, pianist Esbjorn Svensson's original tunes are delivered with a certain amount of Scandinavian cool, but in concert the trio burned several degrees hotter. The ballads revealed their intense emotional cores, and the upbeat tunes pretty much blew the roof off the place. "Mingle in the Mincing Machine," a throbbing highlight on Seven Days of Falling, was particularly fantastic, expanded and embellished in a way that made the recorded version sound like a test run. Double-bassist Dan Berglund's fuzz and wah-wah pedals were deployed in the service of the music, never as a gimmick, and allowed him to produce an incredible range of sound during his lengthy solo. Over some queasy sliding octave bass figures, Svensson launched a solo that moved from lyrical chording to agitated crablike runs that almost seemed to get stuck in drummer Magnus Ostrom's monster groove before skittering away. During this, Berglund kept up a repeated loop-like bass run for minutes on end with flawless intonation and time, before stopping on a dime and going back into the turnaround for the final verse. The release of the tension built up in tune was palpable as the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause.
"That Rube Thing," which Svensson said was dedicated to his son, provided some fantastic fast swinging and an incredibly good solo from Berglund, who has got to be one of the most exciting young bassists around today. Another revelatory solo from Svensson, who displayed impressive chops and originality out of proportion to the group's albums, led to charming traded fours with Ostrom. A run through Monk's "I Mean You" achieved a rare feat: putting a personal stamp on the music of this most idiomatic of pianists while maintaining the essential feel of the tune. Svensson smoothed out the meter to fit his own style and in the process, revealed the beauty of the melody in a way that did not depend on aping Monk's eccentricities.
Perhaps most exciting was the fact that the band's new material, which Svensson said would be featured on an upcoming release, was as strong as anything else in the set. "A Picture of Doris Traveling with Boris" began with Svensson's prepared piano (a piece of paper over some of the strings gives a raspy, toy-piano tone to some notes) and a forceful vibrato-pedaled bass solo by Berglund that drove the tune to an ecstatic crescendo. Another apparently new tune provided some of the evening's best music, with both Svensson and Berglund pulling an enormous array of sounds from their instruments. Gently plucked piano strings in a minor key led to an exotic, Eastern-tinged bass solo that allowed Berglund to put on a clinic: harmonics achieved with the side of the bow, astringent sliding chords, and effect box grunge were all deployed, against Ostrom's beautiful mallet work on the cymbals. Svensson also seemed to go Oriental in his solo, damping the strings with an arm to get clipped, koto-like tones before delving back into some two-handed crash and rumble up and down the keyboard.
All this was heady stuff, but delivered with such self-effacing charm and obvious joy that the message got across to everyone loud and clear. Nearly every patron stayed for the second set, and several came back from the break clutching newly-purchased copies of Seven Days of Falling, a good sign for EST's fortunes in this country. Here's hoping that the group will soon issue a live set to present a fuller picture of their considerable talents to the record-buying public.