Tuesday, April 17, 2007

CD Review: Tuesday Wonderland: E.S.T.'s Spiritual Journey

Before listening to E.S.T.’s new release, Tuesday Wonderland, I revisited E.S.T. Plays Monk (1995), once a pricey, hard-to-find import and now available for $9.90 from iTunes. Their version of “’Round Midnight” is as moody and lyrical as any I’ve heard, with lush, lovely strings and delicate runs on the piano. “Bemsha Swing” is more clearly E.S.T: Monk’s music, but their style. While many artists can’t play Monk without sounding like Monk (if they’re lucky), E.S.T. isn’t afraid to bend the master’s melodies to their own purposes. It’s a whole new song.

E.S.T. is Esbjörn Svensson on piano, Dan Berglund on bass, and Magnus Öström on drums. Dubbed “Europe’s leading jazz trio,” winner of several Swedish Grammys, named “Best International Act” at last year’s BBC Jazz Awards, they’re the first European jazz group to make the cover of Downbeat and probably the only Swedish jazz group that ever will. Jamie Cullum loves them, and so does Pat Metheny. Keith Jarrett recommended them to Japan’s top promoter. Their thousands of friends on MySpace include Metheny, Wilco, and Bjork. In Scandinavia and Europe, they’re a supergroup, charting gold and/or platinum and filling large venues, for which they bring out the light shows and fog machines. Here across the pond they perform without the special effects and draw smaller crowds, no doubt due to the “jazz trio” label. That’s too bad, because their music is such a wildly eclectic, rhythmically diverse yet utterly absorbing mix—jazz, classical, pop, rock, blues, jam band, drum ’n’ bass, funk, electronic, techno, trippy, a hint of ambient and a dose of grunge—that there’s something for almost everyone.

Released stateside on April 10, Tuesday Wonderland is E.S.T.’s tenth album (eleventh if you count 2001’s compilation Somewhere Else Before). They describe it as connecting directly to their previous release, Viaticum (2005). The word viaticum means “provisions for a journey”—in this case, the music you need as you journey through life. Inspired by Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, with nods to Bartok, Hendrix, and Radiohead, Tuesday Wonderland is a spiritual journey. While clearly related to Viaticum, it stands firmly on its own. It’s familiar but not predictable, experimental but still accessible if you’re new to E.S.T. and want to check them out. All eleven tracks are originals.

The first track includes a sonic gimmick unworthy of this fine trio. “Fading Maid Preludium” begins with soft, romantic solo piano meanderings by Svensson. Do not turn up the volume on your stereo or especially your iPod to catch the nuances. Forty-eight seconds into this eloquent reverie, Berglund and Öström enter with an explosive crash of cymbals and heavy-metal bass that will knock you out of your chair. The remaining three minutes suggest Iceland’s Sigur Ros without the singers: a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds driven by Berglund’s distorted arco bass and punctuated by Öström’s drums.

“Tuesday Wonderland,” the title track, is sunny and joyous. In Öström’s words, “The title comes from when things start getting new all the time, and life is an adventure. Everything is new in life. It’s a positive time.” Piano and bass match each other note-by-note in a fast-paced dance. Then Berglund hits a switch and takes his bass into the ethereal electronic world he inhabits so comfortably and well. More rhythmic interplay between the three musicians, a touch of bass-driven synthesizer, and we’re left feeling breathless. It’s a tune reminiscent of “Dodge the Dodo” and “Spam-Boo-Limbo,” both high-energy, happy songs from earlier E.S.T. releases.

“The Goldhearted Miner” opens with Svensson plucking the piano strings for a banjo-like sound. Then we’re into laid-back ballad land, with soft piano notes and chords, Öström on swirling brushes, and Berglund playing it straight. Svensson is an avowed admirer of Brad Mehldau, and we can hear hints of Mehldau’s ruminative meanderings. If you’re familiar with E.S.T.’s From Gagarin’s Point of View (1999), this might remind you of the title track.

The plucking that ends “Miner” segues into more that begins “Brewery of Beggars,” but any similarities end almost immediately. The sound is no longer benign, but dark and distant and strange, like a music box heard in a dream. Berglund walks a few notes on his bass, Öström enters with a bang, and we’re off on an eight-minute tear through an ever-changing sonic landscape alternately fierce and tender. This track is worth several listens. Try to ride each instrument in turn and hang on all the way through. At times, Berglund’s bass is the electric guitar at a head-bangers’ ball.

“Beggar’s Blanket” is the calm after the storm, a spare and elegant arrangement that evokes Bach. Briefly, someone sings off-tune (isn’t the culprit usually the piano player?) but otherwise it’s a classic duo. Drummer Öström sits this one out. Why “Beggar’s Blanket”? Tongue-in-cheek titles are an E.S.T. tradition. Favorites from previous CDs: “A Picture of Doris Traveling with Boris,” “In the Tail of Her Eye,” “When God Created the Coffeebreak.”

“Dolores in a Shoestand” is so much fun that it turns into an actual party. The tempo speeds up midway through, and about two minutes from the end we hear clapping and crowd sounds—voices, whistles, maybe ice clinking in a glass. They’re having a good time and so are we. Adding crowd sounds to a studio track can sound strained, but here it works, perhaps because the group genuinely enjoys playing live shows. “We are a touring band,” Svensson says, “and I love it.”

“Where We Used to Live” is another beautiful ballad, reminding us once again that E.S.T. can be a polite, well-behaved jazz trio when they want to. It’s interesting that they want to as often as they do. Despite the light shows and fog machines, Svensson, Berglund, and Öström have made a real commitment to jazz, and when they power down the synths they’re as good as anyone.

“Eighthundred Streets by Feet” merges swirling piano riffs and repetitions with ticking percussion on the firm foundation of Berglund’s bass. Over nearly seven minutes, it slowly grows, adding layers and volume, then pulls back for quiet notes from Berglund, a bit of arco, some sparkling piano, a final crescendo, and fade. Nicely done.

Öström explains the title of the next track, “Goldwrap”: “The feeling of a goldwrap could be a hug when you’re in love.” The song was born on a cassette of musical sketches pianist Svensson recorded two or three years ago. After Viaticum, he returned to the sketches to see what might be there. “Goldwrap” is fast-paced and dazzling. Öström taps a rapid-fire beat on the rims of his drums, Berglund adds his signature fuzzy bass, and Svensson seams it all together with rich, complex piano playing. A “ta-da” on the keys, a lone held note, and it’s over.

“Sipping on the Solid Ground” slows the pace once again and returns to basics: lyrical piano, languid bass and drums. This could be the soundtrack for a late-night kitchen dance with your sweetheart.

The final track, “Fading Maid Postludium,” brings us full circle and ends a journey full of discoveries and surprises. This time, E.S.T. skips the piano opener and crescendos straight from silence into the power chords. Soon the bass and drums retreat, leaving Svensson alone for what you might think is a soft, romantic solo piano close. Not so. After three and a half minutes of complete silence, during which you’ve probably ejected the CD from your car player or thought “What the…?” and fast-forwarded to the next track on your MP3 player, the trio returns for the real ending: ambient electronic noises and rhythms, squeaks and buzzes and hums stitched together with chiming notes from the piano.

Tuesday Wonderland’s predecessor Viaticum also ends with a track that sounds like it’s over long before it is; “What Though the Way” has four minutes of dead space. Similarly, the final track on Good Morning Susie Soho (2000), “Reminiscence of a Soul,” pauses for a long minute, then returns for a big finish. E.S.T. has done this sort of thing three times now, and they should stop. It’s unnecessary and annoying. Mostly, it’s not fair to make us wait.

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