Mar. 1 2009 Gothenburg Sweden.
Tour going well. Nothing unusual to report. What is very much on my mind now is the fact that the pianist Esbjorn Svensson is from this city. Today I’d like to talk about him.
For the last ten years, Esbjorn has one of my biggest influences as a musician and a composer. His group, E.S.T. ( Esbjorn Svensson Trio) is the first group to come along for years that I’ve cited as my ‘favorite band.’ This hasn’t happened since the days of Kiss and Van Halen in my youth. Why? Because most rock bands I’ve liked haven’t had the consistency to retain that status in my mind, while most jazz bands I’ve liked are in reality a bandleader and good sidemen. They can be great but don’t usually last long as ‘bands.’
EST is an exception to both rules. There is no other musical group that has so purely captured everything I love about music. I only saw them once, before they were known and knew right away there were special. They were on a tiny Swedish record label. Later they would be signed to Universal/Sony.
About a week ago, my friend Max told me that Esbjorn had passed away last year in a diving accident.
“You can’t be serious.” I said.
He thought he may have mentioned it in an e-mail to me.
“No, I’m sure you didn’t.” I told him. ” I would have remembered.”
Max could only say for sure that it was a European jazz pianist, someone from Scandinavia. And he was pretty sure it was a Swedish musician he was thinking of, although he wasn’t a hundred percent positive. Perhaps he was confusing him with someone else? I knew Esborn was passionate about diving, as well as music, so it would have made sense. Still I hoped to god Max was mistaken.
It was about an hour before showtime at London’s Wembley Arena, the most important show of our current tour with Judas Priest and Megadeth. I was just about to direct Max to the ‘will call’ booth to pick up his passes and meet up with our other friends from London who were due to arrive soon. I couldn’t go into mourning right then. I needed to warm up and chose to put off my thoughts for a while and just focus on the night’s performance. Besides, maybe it wasn’t true? How could I not have heard about it it was?
The next day we were in Nottingham. My plan was to write recapture my experience the last time I was there in ’95 (my one and only show as guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne). I took out my MacBook and couldn’t type a thing. That story would have to wait. I had to know the truth about Esbjorn.
I went on-line, started a Google search and entered “Esbjorn Svensson.” One of the first topics that automatically came up was ‘Esbjorn Svensson Cause Of Death.” I immediately got chills on my skin and tears in my eyes.
How can Esbjorn have passed on? Even stranger is that it happened last year. How did I not know about it?
There are two reasons. One is that Esbjornn Svensson is far more well known outside of the US. When I googled him, most of the articles were from the UK and Europe. The other reason is that last year was a whirlwind year of touring for me, bouncing between Testament, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and my own improvisational group, Alex Skolnick Trio. Although there are many who naturally refer to us as ‘AST,’ I’ve always avoided officially adopting these initials out of respect to EST.
It was ten years ago in Eilat, Israel, at the annual Red Sea Jazz Festival when I first stumbled upon EST. I was visiting with my new Israeli girlfriend (future wife and ex-wife). We had met as music students at the New School in New York and it was my first time visiting Israel. I was excited to hear guitarist John Scofield and pianist Chick Corea, while she, being a singer, was looking forward to two vocalists. One was Dianne Reeves whom I’m also a big fan of having seen her on TV years ago as well as live in New York. The other singer was someone I wasn’t familiar with: Victoria Tolstoy
Victoria Tolstoy (who incidentally, is descended from the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy) was very good and pleasant to listen to. But it was her backing band that caught my attention: the Esbjorn Svenson Trio. Every few songs, she would take a break backstage and let the trio perform on their own. I was expecting them to do standard jazz repertoire material. Instead, they did their own unique compositions, which were like nothing I’d ever heard before.
Just before this, on another stage, we had seen Chick Corea, one of my favorite pianists of all time. Chick’s group, Origin, consisted of young ‘A List’ improvisers playing exciting intricate, dexterous, highly intellectual improvisation which pushed Chick to the top of his game. It was a great performance and it would take a lot for any piano player to get my attention after that. But Esbjorn Svenson made me forget all about the fact that I’d seen a Chick Corea concert.
It wasn’t that I felt Esbjorn was a ‘better’ pianist than Chick Corea. It was that there was something very unique with Esbjorn and his band. All three were expert soloists but the music was about so much more than that and had a special synchronicity that captivated me. These guys had the ears, sense of dynamics and sensitivity of pro jazz players, but unlike Chick’s gig which was especially for jazzheads (like myself), this was music which stretched beyond the jazz connoisseur. And unlike smooth jazz, one of the few genres I genuinely despise, this music was accessible without being mechanical. The listener was taken on a journey, one which could go to high peaks of excitement and dreamlike trance within a single tune. The musicianship seemed to serve a purpose other than demonstrating its own high level. Indeed, EST’s musicianship existed for the sake of being better able to capture feelings and express them through music. For me, the song of theirs which most encapsulated this for me was called ‘From Gagarin’s Point Of View. which, Esbjorn told the audience, was inspired by deep sea diving.
After the show, he and the other guys walked to the front of the stage and sold their CD’s out of cardboard boxes. When it was my turn, I complimented him on a great show. He thanked me and asked me which CD I wanted.
“I’d like the ‘diving song’ please!” I said handing him the equivalent of ten dollars in Israeli currency.
“Of course, the ‘diving’ song!” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got that right here. Here ya go. Enjoy!” He went on to the next customer. I didn’t know this would be the last time I’d see him alive.
Unlike many pianists of his generation, Esbjorn never tried to be Brad Mehldau (my generation’s jazz piano equivalent of Eddie Van Halen). He risked lack of credibility from the Mehldau disciples and the jazz police in general, and it didn’t matter. He was able to tap into a whole audience that hadn’t liked jazz before, eventually reaching the pop charts in Europe. And it wasn’t as though EST had no jazz acceptance, either, becoming the first ever European artists to appear on the cover of DownBeat magazine. None of this would have happened if he had followed the many other pianists around who tried to suddenly be like Brad. Who knows, he might have pulled some of it off convincingly but it wouldn’t have been who he really was.
By following his own path, Esbjorn helped me feel more confident in myself and more secure that as a jazz musician, I was a little ‘different(understatement). He helped me feel more confident in myself. He inspired me to stop caring about the approval from the ‘Jazz world,” whatever that means anymore. I’ve learned many things from him, which I’ve been able to apply to my own music- experimenting, not being afraid of other influences outside the realm of acceptance, encouraging all the instruments to explore different territory and most of all, using the group as a unit, rather than a showcase for my own playing. Thank goodness I play guitar, not piano, otherwise I’m afraid I might sound a bit too much like him.
It sounds typical to say that the loss of Esbjorn Svenson is a tragic loss to the music world, but there’s no other way of putting the truth. I hope more people get a chance to experieince the greatness of his music and find inspiration in it, as I have. If you would like to find out more, start with this YouTube Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VLuR7nly0I.
Here’s a great tribute from the UK Guardian:
In this overly saturated world of short attention spans and sensory overload, it’s easy to forget how music, real music, comes straight from the soul. We need reminders of that sometime. Anytime I need my reminder, I listen to EST.