e.s.t. (Esbjorn Svensson Trio)
sbjorn Svensson Trio’s 2005 album, the slightly dark, classically-inclined Viaticum, became one of the biggest selling jazz LPs in Europe last year. They are the only European jazz act to have ever graced the cover of America’s Downbeat magazine in its 72-year history. Their gigs are intense and exciting events eliciting crowd reactions supposedly not unlike Beatlemania. This is a Swedish instrumental piano jazz trio we’re talking about. They describe themselves as a pop band who play jazz. They’re becoming something of a phenomenon.
e.s.t. records are captivating, eclectic things—repositories for fantastically odd song titles and astounding musicianship that vacillates wildly between traditional jazz and a borderline psychedelic rock attack, the two extremes somehow bound together in a unified aesthetic. They’ve been compared (on more than one occasion) to both Radiohead and Schubert, as well as more usual piano-led jazz-cornerstones like Keith Jarrett, and fusionists like Pat Metheny. Tuesday Wonderland, their tenth or so album in a decade-long career, is probably also their best.
“Fading Maid Peludium” starts the album with a moment of quiet reflection before a hellish, grinding, crashing Godspeed-esque miasma of noise and chaos drops in, electric bass (I assume—it’s hard to tell) flanged and feeding back like a guitar for the next three minutes. It’s typical e.s.t. in that it’s not at all typical—the album’s essential pace and dynamic is governed by juxtapositions between shorter, traditionally arranged piano-trio jazz ballads painted with hints of melancholy, and more up-tempo, exploratory pieces that fuse the energy and sonic scope of experimental rock and pop with the musicianship of jazz and a palette of textures drawn seemingly from everywhere.
The title track builds off a repetitive, kraut-y piano riff, not dissimilar to that found on Talk Talk’s classic “Life’s What You Make It.” Bass drops in, further layers of twirling piano dance around skittish drums and simple acoustic bass patterns at deceptive speed. There’s both a glacial and futurist aura to the concentric circles of the tune, suggesting that progress doesn’t have to be at the expense of beauty. Similarly “Brewery of Beggars” is built on Magnus Ostrom’s propulsive drums, more cyclic piano runs, and an array of synthetic tones, climbing to heavy drama before falling away to reveal disjointed but calming piano chords, and then BAM; the drums erupt again, the drama climbs again, squall emanates from bassist Dan Berglund (who clearly has occasional Jimi Hendrix and Kevin Shields fantasies), and each instrument is freed to elaborate on its own before recombining.
“The Goldhearted Minor” is one of the more autumnal and traditional moments, even if its embellished with an unusual motif played on twanging acoustic strings. “Dolores in a Shoestand” utilizes ticking percussion and strange, robotic beatboxing, streams of light emanating from Svensson’s piano lines, the tempo slowly rising before the final minute or two wind down in a flurry of appreciative voices and other circumstantial noises, like Cannonball Adderley’s notoriously faked “live” set on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
“Where We Used to Live” treads a Kind of Blue-esque midnight melancholy; “Goldwrap” showcases Svensson’s rich, deep piano sound atop a moistened metronome. The final third of the album ties together the record’s two strands, slowing the faster numbers and adding texture and speed to the slower ones, before “Fading Maid Postludium” reprises the opening track, huge arches of guitar-esque growl recalling icebergs, battling polar bears, and the aurora borealis, slowly retreating to just piano and then silence.
Tuesday Wonderland doesn’t mark a great leap in the development of e.s.t.; it fully realizes the areas and ideas they have been working with for the last half-decade. It’s a dreamlike but not narcoleptic record, full of small details and grand themes, ambitious enough to reference Hendrix and Bach in the space of a couple of tracks. The musicianship and compositional skill is enough to engross and delight any jazz fan, but the emotion and excitement of the music proves that you don’t need to be an aficionado to enjoy Tuesday Wonderland—you just need ears.