Day 8 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 29, 2006
The majority of the set revolved around lengthy modal vamps but the melodies, arranged for the various front line configurations, elevated them beyond mere vamping. And the interplay between the rhythm section and whoever was soloing was not just something you sawthough that was clearly obviousbut something you felt. Fickelson, in particular, straddled the line between McCoy Tyner's block chord approach and Herbie Hancock's greater abstraction.
But while the focus of the set was on modality, the color blue was a major part of the nearly 90-minute set. The sextet played a more conventional blues structure for its final number, although the front line of oboe, soprano saxophone and flugelhorn made it anything but conventional. At the end of the tune the audience gave the group a well-deserved standing ovation, and it was clear that Lateef was appreciative. While it was unfortunate that they were unable to perform an encore, Lateef was seen afterwards signing CDs and LPs and talking to a group of people surrounding him. A beautiful way to end one of the highlights of this year's festival.
Sweden's Esbjörn Svenson Trio, or EST as they have come to be known, made their first appearance at the 10:30 pm Studio Series at the National Arts Centre. They've played Montreal before on more than one occasion, and have consistently wowed audiences with their approach, which has its roots as much in popular music as it does in jazz. Pianist Svensson, in fact, has been known to describe the trioalso featuring bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Oströmas a pop band playing jazz. They're often compared to American counterparts The Bad Plus, but have always been a generally more elegant alternative to TBP's aggressive stance.
ESTfriends since childhoodhas been together for nearly fifteen years now, and while their popularity continues to climb, especially in Europe where they have sold hundreds of thousands of records, they may be starting to stall. They are becoming more choreographed in their performances, and there are certain defining characteristics that you can expect to hear at every concert, in particular Berglund's penchant for distorting his acoustic bass and then bowing it aggressively. Then again, Berglund has, in interviews, cited heavy metal bands as one of his influences, so this edgy solo approach is no surprise.
But what differentiated EST in past years was their ability to integrate accessible writing, strong playing, and electronic processing that was a subtle enhancer. At last night's performance it became clear that, these days, the signal processing is taking greater prominence. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
The trio performed material that, aside from a buoyant version of an older tune called "That Rube Thing, was culled from their most recent recordsStrange Place for Snow (ACT, 2002), Seven Days of Falling (ACT, 2003) and Viaticum (ACT, 2005). And while songs like "The Unstable Table & The Infamous Fable began with a classicism that featured Svensson's right hand arpeggios supporting a left hand theme doubled by Berglund, it quickly evolved into a more aggressive piece, despite Oström remaining on brushes throughout.
Svensson seemed enthralled with applying, at times, a touch of distortion to his grand piano, resulting in a buzzing sound that was more annoying than innovative. Still, he's a fine player, capable of melancholy lyricism on the ever-so-slightly countrified ballad, "Believe, Beleft, Below. And when he applied heavy reverb to expand his instrument spacially, seeming to fill the room with a dark, warm sound, it was most appropriate. Oström also applied some signal processing to his kit and percussion, creating a great wash of noise.
And there's nothing wrong with processingor using it to create more jagged sonics for that matter. But whereas some groups integrate the processing so that it becomes a seamless and organic part of the overall sound, at this point EST's balance, in most cases, makes their application of sound modification stick out like a sore thumb.
Still, that doesn't detract from the trio's clear ability. Oström is a fine drummer who may not swing conventionally, but has his own approach to time that grooves whether the song is delicate or jarring. Berglund's tone is full-bodied and while he's sometimes called upon to repeat challenging patterns endlessly while Svensson solos over top, he also demonstrates an ability to create simple support lines that are really about the right note at the right timeand for the right length of time, with Berglund comfortable in letting a note decay slowly before moving on.