Eight years. Imagine what pianist Esbjörn Svensson might have done in that time. The compositions. The tours. The era-defining albums. The genres and artists influenced. The collaborations. It doesn’t bear thinking about, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio-shaped hole that’s been left behind in European jazz.
This new album seeks, in a way, to fill that hole. Part celebration, part elegy, part memorial. However good it ends up, it is only ever going to be a sticking plaster over a deep wound.
The album features the two remaining members of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (more commonly known as E.S.T.), drummer Magnus Öström and bassist Dan Berglund. Both have since Svensson’s death separately carved out their own musical careers, but here they have come back to join the 90-piece Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in re-evaluating their rich legacy with their friend.
Swedish composer-arranger Hans Ek took on the task of re-working twelve of thirteen of e.s.t.’s greatest, gutsiest tracks by adding a range of different musical colours that work in and out of the original tunes and seek to elevate them into a new, fuller form (one track - Dodge the Dodo - uses an orchestral arrangement written by Svensson before his death, in 1998.)
To bring about this musical resurrection, Ek brought together the cream of Scandi-Jazz - Marius Neset (sax); Verneri Pohjola (trumpet); Johan Lindström (pedal steel - unusual, but a neat sound!); and Iiro Rentala taking on the unenviable task of replicating Svensson’s piano playing (which he does, all in all, rather well).
The musicianship is top notch - orchestra and soloists. There’s no doubt about that, nor about the passion with which they approached this project. The classical/jazz crossover is still a relatively rare beast and something for which the orchestra ensemble was probably champing at the bit to try out. The compositions by Ek are, I feel, a little over-wrought in places for my pleasure, but overall they are worthy ornamentations to show up the quality of the original tunes. The opener, E.S.T. Prelude, echoes some familiar Svensson themes, with its string-heavy romantic elements and a movie-soundtrack-like pumped-up brass section.
Some of the re-workings work in enriching the palette; some serve simply as whitewash, rather hiding the beauty - and maybe more importantly - simplicity of the composition, most of which, by their very nature, benefitted from Svensson’s ‘less is more’ approach to melodies and themes.
From Gagarin’s Point of View does enrich the original track from the band's breakthrough album. It is essentially intact, with the orchestra adding a light-touch ornamentation and re-energising the piece for the listener. Similarly, When God Created the Coffee Break is unmistakably E.S.T. - the tricky, insistent rhythm, the up-n-down piano motif; Ek’s composition only seeks to fill in the gaps, adding air and lifting the tune upwards. On Dodge the Dodo, however, the orchestration seems a little, well, unambitious and verging on a cinema score, so lush is the orchestration.
Quibbles, sure, but fundamentally the E.S.T. superstructure stands proud and it is the contributions of the various soloists to each song which ensures this experiment - for that is what it is - delivers some good results alongside a few unclear outputs. Verne Pohjola’s muted, scratchy trumpet playing on Eight-Hundred Streets by Feet makes you wonder what heights E.S.T. could have further struck if, in addition to their use of electronic instrumentation from time to time, they’d introduced further new sounds and collaborators.
The classical crossover album can sometimes be, in rock and pop at least, an admission of failure by groups who’ve lost their creative edge - Metallica and Kiss both went down the orchestral route with mixed results in rock, and OMD - pioneers of UK electronica - rather missed the point by performing with a full orchestra in the last decade.
Here, it’s not so much pastiche or re-packaging, but an earnest attempt to remember and remind. It is not, nor cannot be, as good as E.S.T. were in their prime, that’s a given. But as an attempt to bring back the musical memories and say ‘thank you’ to a big talent, it’s a worthwhile effort and one which will bring about mixed emotions for E.S.T. fans across the world. What might have been!