Esbjörn Svensson and Jan Johansson: the tragic catalysts

Stuart Nicholson
Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The 14 June 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of Esbjörn Svensson, just as he was on the cusp of global stardom. Stuart Nicholson examines the primary influence of fellow star-crossed pianist Jan Johansson on this game-changing musician and laments how both artists had much unfinished business ahead of them

The year 1962 represented the beginnings of a breakthrough in the career of the Swedish pianist Jan Johansson. Encouraged by the positive reception to his album 8 Bitar the year before, and in particular the response to his jazz treatment of a Swedish folk melody ‘De Sålde Sina Hemman’, he entered the studios on 28 February to begin work on a new project. He had been researching Swedish folkloric melodies from the foremost folk-music anthology in Sweden, Svenska Låtar, comprising some 8,000 melodies published in 24 volumes between 1922 and 1944, and had selected three melodies for the session – ‘Visa från Utanmyra’, ‘Leksands Skänklåt’ and ‘Vållat från Jamtland’. Together with ‘De Sålde Sina Hemman’, which he had recorded the previous year, they were released as an EP called Jazz på Svenska 1. Accompanied by bassist Georg Riedel, Johansson plays the melodies with little or no ornamentation or altered harmonies. His improvisations were clear, concise and profound, concerned with developing the themes while retaining the character and spirit of each song. The disc proved to be a success with the public. It was followed by two further EPs, Jazz på Svenska 2 in 1963 and Jazz på Svenska 3 in 1964, which proved equally popular, prompting the re-release of all three discs on a 12-inch long-player as Jazz på Svenska (with a newly recorded version of ‘De Sålde Sina Hemman’).

Jazz på Svenska has the distinction of hardly ever being out of print since the early 1960s, and is regularly heard on TV and radio in Sweden to this day. It’s the best-selling jazz album in Sweden, outselling classics such as Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, and has been streamed more than 12 million times on Spotify. The album’s influence has been profound – for example, pianists such as Bobo Stenson, Jan Lundgren, Tord Gustavsen, Martin Tingvall, Helge Lien, Espen Berg and Spacelab have all taken account of Johansson’s playing, as had the late Esbjörn Svensson. Not only did Svensson record contemporary updates of Jazz på Svenska (in duo with Nils Landgren) on Swedish Folk Modern and Layers of Light, but with his trio EST he saluted Johansson on the title-track of From Gagarin’s Point of View that distantly, but unmistakably, echoed the opening track of the album Jazz på Svenska – ‘Visa från Utanmyra’.

To Svensson, just as Johansson before him, virtuosity was the enemy of expression, something you don’t necessarily expect from piano virtuosos. I was present when EST recorded Tuesday Wonderland at the Atlantis recording studio in Stockholm. I had turned up early, just as the recording engineer Janne Hansson was making the first coffee of the day. Svensson, his back to the control room, was warming up on what I later discovered were preludes and fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich. Tuesday Wonderland was inspired by Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, while Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 was its modernist response, a technically challenging tour de force. Svensson’s stunning display lasted some 30 minutes. Later, I asked him why this aspect of his playing didn’t surface in his jazz performances. He shrugged his shoulders and said bluntly, “It’s not me, that’s not who I am.”

Svensson had a very centred sense of self, and was well aware of the jazz piano tradition he was stepping into. It embraced Bengt Hallberg, Jan Johansson, Per Henrik Wallin, Staffan Abeleen and Bobo Stenson, players who knew how to ‘play’ silence and the importance of touch and intensity. “The sound is very important, the space in the music is very important, the transparency is important, the dynamic important, not how clever you can play your instrument, how fast you can play or how impressive you could be, but how expressive you are,” said bass legend Arild Andersen. These aspects are perfectly captured in an important new release, e.s.t. live in London (ACT). Recorded live in the UK’s Barbican Centre on 20 May 2005, it’s a vivid representation of how less can be more, and how well constructed melodic improvisation without artifice or pretension can reach out and connect with audiences. I was there that night and what was striking to me was the number of young people in the audience. Next to me were four young ladies in their final year of A Level studies. I asked them what had brought them to the concert. They explained EST’s name was “in the air”, that “they were the band to see”, that they all had “most of his records”, and how their music “speaks without words”. With that EST took the stage and the girls burst out screaming as if The Beatles had arrived.

It would become a feature of their European concerts; two years later in Paris I saw the band again and it was not just a few isolated screams, it was the real Beatlemania deal. How do you account for a response like that with regard to a jazz group? We can only speculate, but Svensson worked in rock music for a couple of years after he graduated from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. He knew the value of sound and vision in presentation so he carried a sound engineer (Åke Linton, the fourth member of the trio) and, increasingly, a lighting engineer. Dry ice and atmospheric lighting were all part of the show, but at its heart were his compositions, the entry point into EST’s world and the reason his music communicated so readily beyond the normal jazz constituency. By the time of the Barbican concert, audiences had their favourites: ‘Eighty-eight Days in My Veins’, ‘Mingle in the Mincing Machine’, ‘When God Created the Coffee Break’, and ‘Behind the Yashmak’. All were characterised by accessible, yet memorable melodies. That night, Svensson and EST seemed on the cusp of greatness. Three years later, on 14 June 2008, a tragic accident would claim him before it was realised, just as 40 years earlier a tragic accident, on 9 November 1968, had claimed Johansson. Both had been reaching the peak of their powers and both had so much more to give the world.

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