The Barefoot Singer

Columns | Jean-Pascal Vachon | December 2008 / January 2009

Late EST member Esbjörn Svensson at the piano (Photo: Worldpress)

Let me close the year with two recommendations: one book and one cd. They are among this past year’s best surprises. Sadly, they also happen to be swan songs.

Jazz Life, pictures from William Claxton, texts from Joachim E. Berendt (Taschen), 552 pages, € 49.99.

If you haven’t finished your Christmas list, here’s a suggestion: Jazz Life is the ultimate coffee-table book on jazz. Beware though: your table has to be pretty solid since this book measures 26x35cm and weighs about 5 kilos! What you’ll get, however, if Santa manages to get it down the chimney without ruining his back, is a pictorial road trip across the USA in 1960 by German writer Joachim Berendt and photographer William Claxton. Some of Claxton’s pictures are now classics that you may have seen before: Thelonious Monk in a streetcar in San Francisco, Chet Baker on a sailboat blowing his trumpet, Donald Byrd playing his trumpet in the New York subway, funeral parades in New Orleans… there are hundreds of them used for LP-covers (ah! the good old days…) or published in magazines like Life, Time, Newsweek, Paris Match and GQ.Thanks to the publishing house Taschen (famous for its multilingual art books for hardly the price of a hard cover) Jazz Life, originally published in Germany in 1961, is miraculously available once again. The result of a four-month journey to New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Hollywood and a dozen other places, some prestigious, some less, this wonderful book presents the amazing life of jazz in America with its legends, its street musicians, its (then) young lions and its old pioneers. Published in 2003 at quite a hefty price, Taschen has decided for its 25th anniversary to make it affordable for everyone.

One big advantage for English (and French) only readers: you can buy this book in any bookstore in Austria as the texts are – a Taschen trademark – presented in three languages.

William Claxton, who passed away last October at age 80 to join most of the musicians he immortalized, lives on through these photographs. This fantastic book can be considered the best memorial to his genius.

Leucocyte, EST (Svensson, piano, Dan Berglund, bass, Magnus Öström, drums), Act Music

I don’t know if this is "the" album  of the year, but it’s certainly the most moving. EST is – or, I should say "was" – a trio made of the classic jazz combination of piano, bass and drums; but what it played was hardly "classic". Imagine musicians who grew up in Sweden, listening to rock and pop during the 70s, who were fans of Bach, Chopin and Bartok and who wished to emulate the jazz trios of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett by putting them in a more contemporary context. Combine that with a taste of electronics and the intensity of rock, as well as techno-like rhythms and you’ll get the idea.

With its original concept – being jazz in its approach, though not strictly in its results – EST managed to draw crowds everywhere it performed; both, jazz fans (with open ears…) and younger music fans more accustomed to the energy and the avalanche of decibels of rock rubbing elbows. EST also had the honor of being the first non-American ensemble ever to be put on the cover of the venerable (and very America-centered) Down Beat magazine.

Unfortunately, we must now speak of EST in the past tense, as 44-year-old leader and pianist Esbjörn Svensson died last June in a scuba-diving accident off the coast of Stockholm. Leucocyte, EST’s swan song, published after its leader’s fatal accident, seems strangely prescient with its dark atmosphere and titles like "Ad Mortem" and "Ad Infinitum". The result of two days of jamming in an Australian recording studio, where no themes, no harmonic sketches or rhythmic patterns were given or agreed upon, the album seemed bleak and even claustrophobic after a first listening.

Yet, through all the distortion and Larsen effects, the filters and the electronic devices used to a point that one can’t tell whether the instruments are acoustic or not, the complex amalgam of sounds, pulses and textures and the exploratory atmosphere bring forth a melancholic and poignant beauty. Not unlike a Bergman film or Schubert’s Winter Journey.

"A trip through the bloodstream without compositional safety-net and stylistic restraints in which the borders of musical communication are sounded out" says the press kit.

Where would Esbjörn, Dan and Magnus have brought us after this album? We’ll never know (remembering that they were programmed to play at the Konzerthaus this January makes me even sadder...) There was still so much to explore. What’s left is the albums.

Among the December and January concerts: German organist Barbara Dennerlein in duet with Marcel Gustke (dr). Jazzland, December 9 to 13 (  Guitarist, percusionist and singer Alegre Corrêa with Marcio Tubino (flute and saxophone), Guinha Ramires (guitar) and Alessandro Kramer (accordion). Konzerthaus, December 11, 7:30 ( Bandleader and "godfather" of the Porgy and Bess Mathias Rüegg presents the soloists of the Vienna Art Orchestra 2009 in chamber-like settings. Porgy and Bess, December 13, 8:30 ( Austrian singer and keyboardist Sabina Hank with her quartet. Porgy and Bess, December 15, 8:30

Piano stylist Kenny Werner and his group: Randy Brecker, trumpet, David Sanchez, saxophone, Scott Colley, bass, Antonio Sanchez, drums. Konzerthaus, December 17: 7:30

The new sensation in jazz, sensuous and very gifted Esperanza Spalding, bass and voice and her ensemble (guitar, piano and drums). Konzerthaus, January 19, 9 PM Wishing you all a jazzy new year full of musical discoveries!

Jean-Pascal Vachon is a free-lancing musicologist. He teaches music at Webster University and gives lectures on the history of music in Vienna. In addition, he also contributes texts and works as a translator for the Swedish classical label, BIS.

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