Last month, I went to see the Esbjorn Svensson Trio – EST – in a concert hall in Edinburgh. I was looking forward to the gig: EST are one of my favourite contemporary jazz bands; I have seen them many times over the last seven years or so.
It was disappointing; not bad, but disappointing. Possibly because I have seen them so often – I saw their first Edinburgh gig, when they played Henry’s, a small club which held less than 100 people. It was full that night; the only seat available was right down in the front: I could have turned Svensson’s music. It was an incredible gig, pure musical excitement. The band were loud and soft, rocking and swinging, moving and straight ahead. It was, simply, great.
Since then I have seen them whenever they play in Edinburgh – after Henry’s they graduated to the much larger (but less intimate) venue of the Queen’s Hall – once in Dundee (where they followed a most beautiful gig by Bojan Z; it was empty, and it was like he was playing just for us. EST were too loud, and came across as brash, and didn’t cut it), and once at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, another wonderful performance.
So they have a patchy record, then: I have seen them play brilliant concerts, and I have seen them play poor concerts.
The gig in March wasn’t poor, but it didn’t impress, either. This time they were playing at the Usher Hall, their stature now having outgrown the Queen’s Hall. They are probably the most successful jazz act around at the moment – certainly in Europe. They have crossed over, picking up rock audiences; their music is generally simple – beautiful, but simple: you don’t need to have a knowledge of the jazz tradition to understand or enjoy it. It feelsEuropean, too.
They have a certain sound, a certain consistency to their recordings. But this is a shortcoming, too: their records now tend to sound the same. I have several of their CDs, but I haven’t bothered to buy the latest couple, since the tracks I have heard sound pretty much like those I do have. (A contradiction, clearly: I like the way they sound – I like the noise they make – but I don’t want all their recordings to sound the same.)
They primarily played tunes from their latest album; and they did sound very much like the ones I know from previous records. I thought they were best playing their older material – they played From Gagarin’s Point Of View which was hauntingly beautiful; but mostly, it was their newer, harder-edged material. They were good, but they didn’t really grab me.
They have had a light show of sorts for a while. (They made videos way back, unheard of for a jazz band.) I found it distracting, as if they were trying too hard to compensate for the lack of intimacy in the hall: images of the band’s hands as they played didn’t add anything for me.
So I was disappointed: they were a long way off their best.