Listening to Magnus Öström (via E.S.T)

It’s been on my mind to do a series of posts under the heading of ‘Great Albums by Drummers’; something that for some people would either be a cause for mirth and/or a very short series of posts along the lines of ‘A History of Swiss Naval Battles’.

I’m not sure why this should be the case but  it’s possibly because so many of my generation grew up with the template of Ringo Starr, the epitome of the (essentially) non-musical drummer – good for solid, no-nonsense tub-thumping and the occasional novelty tune like ‘Yellow Submarine‘, but not much otherwise.  The conceit underlying this outlook, of course, is that drummers just need some sense of rhythm; they don’t need to be able to write or read music and they don’t have to be able to sing. 

“I like to be, beside the sea….”

So it is, that when a drummer emerges from behind his kit, I’m still often  slightly surprised.   The rock bands of the 60’s and 70’s  very occasionally produced someone like Mickey Hart, Don Henley, Levon Helm or Bill Bruford, who appeared to have a little more to offer.  Then there was Phil Collins, but I think I’ll take a raincheck on him for now, if it’s all the same to you.  By and large, though, the Great Albums by Drummers list was looking pretty sparse.

In jazz, during the same general era,  Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Max Roach led bands that achieved varying degrees of prominence and distinction, but these were bands where the focus was never specifically on the drummer, but more on the ‘collective’ or even on the other participants.  Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, for example, were celebrated chiefly for the ‘Who’s Who’ of emergent players (from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis) who got their first serious exposure in Blakey’s ever-shifting line-ups.  It was the same story with Tony Williams; his Lifetime band probably gave more prominence to players like Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin than to Williams himself and his mid-80’s band that made several impressive albums for Blue Note was as well-known for the involvement of players like Bobby Hutcherson and Wallace Roney as it was for Williams’ own contributions.

For me, the drummer who began to change things around was Jack de Johnette.  His 1970’s solo albums for ECM revealed him to be a consummate player, of course, but they also saw him stepping out to play piano on a few really impressive tunes like ‘Blue’ and ‘Silver Hollow’.  JdJ really hit his stride in the late 80’s with ‘Parallel Realities’ a solo album made with A-List collaborators in Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny and later  translated to a live context with the addition of Dave Holland on bass.  The almost infinite possibilities of a modern studio allowed de Johnette to really cut loose with layers of keyboards and multiple percussion, bringing in Hancock and Metheny to add their own distinctive contributions like cherries on top of the cake.

Jack de Johnette

Since then, we seem to have seen a range of drummers who lead bands but bring more to the table than just their rhythmic sense.  Jim Black has produced a series of excellent albums for Winter & Winter with his Alasnoaxis band, Joey Baron has produced two excellent solo albums – ‘Down Home’ and ‘We’ll soon find out’ (Intuition), Peter Erskine has led a marvellous acoustic trio with John Taylor and Palle Danielsson on a series of ECM releases , the multi-talented  Thomas Strønen is involved in a series of Rune Grammofon bands, not to mention  Food (with Iain Ballamy) – there are no doubt other nominees for this list.

Most impressive of all for me though are the three albums made since 1998 by drummer Brian Blade with his Fellowship ensemble.  This is a band that combines an unusual instrumentation – two saxes, steel guitar, guitar, piano, bass and drums with a repertory of tunes, often composed by Blade himself, that tap into an extraordinarily rich vein of music that references  the jazz-meets Americana style of Pat Metheny, ECM-style ‘chamber’ jazz,  and even progressive rock.  In particular, the first two albums they made for Blue Note – ‘Brian Blade Fellowship’ (1998) and ‘Perceptual’ (1999)  are quite magnificent.  Their 2008 ‘reunion’ album ‘Season of Changes’ wasn’t quite as impressive, but better than most of its type.

The Brian Blade Fellowship on stage

And so to Magnus Öström, formerly the drummer with the most successful European jazz group of all time, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.), whose stellar progress was abruptly halted in 2008, when pianist Svensson was tragically killed in a scuba-diving accident in the Stockholm Archipelago. 

E.S.T.’s career path had been on an upward curve since the late 90’s when their album ‘From Gagarin’s point of view’ began to make waves for the band outside of their home territory.  Up until that point, they had been a sturdy but unremarkable piano trio, dutifully trotting out Thelonious Monk covers and commanding a respectable following in Scandinavia at least.  ‘Gagarin’ showed a shift towards more (and more interesting) self-penned numbers and a conscious attempt to break down the conventions surrounding piano trios.  Production values changed, with the band opting for a harder edged sound more often associated with rock bands, the occasional vocal interlude crept in and all three players began to use electronic effects that boosted the volume and the range of the band. 

This was no longer Bill Evans territory.   Öström’s drum style began to adopt the fast-paced choppy style hinting at drum & bass and other non-jazz stylings, Bassist Dan Berglund began to use all manner of effects to amplify his bass, evoking the spirit of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jaco Pastorius, whilst Svensson himself manipulated the sound of his grand piano, producing notes that -once put through the electronic wringer – would ‘decay’ far more quickly or spiral and echo away to nothing.

The Esbjörn Svensson Trio on stage

Between 2000 and 2003, E.S.T. produced a trio of albums that essentially defined their sound and their appeal.  ‘Good morning Susie Soho’, ‘Strange place for snow’ and ‘Seven days of falling’  each raised the bar another notch and showed a band who had locked on to a highly persuasive and effective style.  These three CD’s and the ensuing tours gave the band a higher profile than was customary and brought a quite different and much younger audience than most jazz gigs were capable of attracting.

On stage, E.S.T. were as dynamic and upfront as any rock band; no dry ice, but plenty of snazzy lighting and excellent sound – they played loud as well!  However, by 2005’s ‘Viaticum’ the band were on the horns of a dilemma; clearly Svensson had no desire to broaden his palette by using electronic keyboards, so there was a feeling with this album and its successor, ‘Leucocyte‘ that the band were starting to repeat themselves and were running out of ideas.

If electronic instruments were out, then another possible path they could follow would be to bring in more players.  At Germany’s ‘Jazz Baltica’ festival in 2003, they collaborated with both Pat Metheny and an orchestra and they also worked briefly with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius.

Svensson’s sudden death put a stop to any such speculation and after 15 years of E.S.T.,  both Berglund and Öström were effectively left high and dry.  Inevitably, they both took time off to regroup but with E.S.T’s label, ACT signing them both to solo deals, it was always going to be interesting to see what they would do next.

Bassist Dan Berglund was the first to break cover with an album and a band called ‘Tonbruket’, literally a ‘tone factory’.  Tonbruket (the band) are a quartet that utilises steel guitar, pump organ and electronic keyboards.  They sound nothing like E.S.T. but their debut CD would probably have to be classed as a mild disappointment.

That just left Magnus Öström, who has finally emerged from the shadows with a terrific album called ‘Thread of Life’.   Öström has put together a quartet of his own, featuring Andreas Hourdakis on guitars, Gustaf Karlöf on keyboards, and Thobias Gabrielson on bass; all musicians from Stockholm. 

Whilst Tonbruket seemed consciously to shy away from sounding like E.S.T., Öström’s band have taken the jazz-into-rock pathways that E.S.T. were carving out and made them much more overt.  In some respects, this is more of a prog rock album than a jazz album, evoking fellow travellers like Norway’s Jaga Jazzist or In the Country.  Whilst not an unqualified success, it’s a massively promising debut and reflects well on Öström’s qualities as a writer.  Most of the talk about this album has centred on ‘Ballad for E.’, a tribute to  Esbjörn Svensson.  It’s a ten-minute long ballad played by Öström in company with Dan Berglund and Pat Metheny on acoustic guitar.  Recorded in New York, it is pleasant enough, but Metheny is in his comfort zone here; he’s been playing these plangent ballads for thirty years now and seems to me to have  little new to offer in this area.  Nonetheless, it’s clearly a heartfelt tribute and should be respected as such; E.S.T. were obviously friends as well as bandmates and Öström still  feels a sense of loss.

Even so, the rest of the album is much more adventurous and exciting on the whole.  They are touring Europe at the moment and it will be interesting to see how their sound devlops.

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