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Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
Regarding e.s.t.'s Tuesday Wonderland (2006)
and Viaticum (2005) on SACD
According to Wikipedia (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esbjörn_Svensson_Trio):
Esbjörn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t.) was a Swedish jazz piano trio formed in 1993 consisting of Esbjörn Svensson (piano), Dan Berglund (double bass) and Magnus Öström (drums). Its music has classical, rock, pop, and techno elements. It lists classical composer Béla Bartók and rock band Radiohead as influences. Its style involves conventional jazz and the use of electronic effects and multi-track recording.
The group deliberately blurred genres, with Svensson's musical Catholicism drawing upon a wide variety of artist influences. e.s.t. was also renowned for its vibrant style in live performances, often playing in rock and roll oriented venues to young crowds. It achieved great commercial success and critical acclaim throughout Europe. Its 1999 release From Gagarin's Point of View started its international breakthrough, being the first e.s.t. album to be released outside of Scandinavia through the German label ACT.
Svensson died in a scuba diving accident in Stockholm on 14 June 2008. He is survived by his wife and two sons. The publication All About Jazz remarked that the loss "will surely deeply sadden music lovers everywhere."
I don't think that e.s.t. is known very widely outside of Europe, although I could be mistaken. A friend turned me onto two of their [SA]CD's, one of which (Viaticum) I had to get as a promotional copy from ACT because it's so rare in the SACD format, costing as much as $500.00 through Amazon third-party sellers.
In terms of style, Tuesday Wonderland is much more raucous than Viaticum, the latter sounding more like mainstream jazz. I've listened to both albums many times via my Woo WA7 Fireflies at the office and also at least once as full SACD's via my Theta Compli Blu in my main system. I should mention that the Compli Blu's performance has been upgraded a bit after installing a 10-foot Audience powerChord "e" between my PS Audio Power Plant 10 and the Equi=Tech balanced transformer that feeds my Compli Blu. I also moved a set of four Spiral Groove Strange Attractors from under the Mac mini in my digital music server to under the Compli Blue where they make more of a difference. The result of both is to generally improve the sound and, in particular, to soften and delineate the treble so I get something closer—in treble performance—to the Ayre C-5xeMP, the one area where I found the Ayre superior to the Theta in a side by side comparison; but I digress.
Let's start with Tuesday Wonderland, even though it's a later disc, because it more progressive and I actually like Viaticum better, seemingly being more of a classic. So we'll save it for last. The sound of the introductory piano notes on "Fading Maid Preludium" is very rich and natural but is quickly interrupted by a deliberately very distorted synthesizer or electric guitar, something that I personally find quite unpleasant but can appreciate from an intellectual or aesthetic perspective. The title track, "Tuesday Wonderland", has a nice sense of bounce to it and seems a little more mainstream. It's not that I object to experimentation or free jazz. I'm just more into mainstream modern jazz these days, more like the sort thing you'd find on the ECM label. However, I will say that the album Tuesday Wonderland is extremely well recorded and that playing the SACD on my tweaked-out Theta Compli Blu is a true pleasure for that reason alone (and I don't even generally like SACD's). "The Goldhearted Miner" has some interesting instrumentation on it and a much more laid back sound. In this context, I'm not talking about the sound of the SACD (although the piano is delicious) but the playing and arrangement, not to mention the melody or the tune itself. You can also hear a little humming à la Keith Jarrett (although Jarrett is not on this disc), which I enjoy. "Brewery of Beggars" gets a bit more raucous and again steps away from my personal preferences; but there's no point in kicking a dead horse. The horse is dead. I won't detail every track. I think you get my point. This is a well-recorded SACD of some experimental, almost free jazz with moments of solitude that I find quite pleasing. I actually listen to it a lot at work on my WA7 Fireflies, just not when I'm feeling nervous or anxious. It's not a calming disc (nor should it have to be). Overall, I'd say the music is 8/10, the sound is 10/10; and that, alone, may be enough to warrant picking up a copy since you can still get the SACD on Amazon (or at least I was able to). Now onto Viaticum.
Viaticum is a great disc, and I can see why it's regarded as a classic. My copy even has a sticker on it saying, "German Jazz Award". For more information about that, which is actually quite an honor, I refer you once again to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Jazz_Award. "Tide of Trepidation" opens with a very lovely little piano rift (at least I think it's a rift) along with some drums, lightly tapped, and eventually a bass. This is much more melodic than anything on Tuesday Wonderland, not to disparage that disc, and the sound is equally good if not better. There might be a little more air or atmosphere around the instruments. Putting the Theta Compli Blu on "Audio Only" (which defeats all the video circuitry) might open things up a little bit; but if it does so, it's extremely subtle, sort of on the order of using two Shakti stones placed on top of one another as opposed to one alone, i.e., well within the limits of the placebo effect. So, for the most part, I left the video circuitry on and watched the names of the tracks go by as I listened and wrote. It was more fun that way (and something that the Ayre C-5xeMP can't do although the DX-5DSD can, I assume). Getting back to Viaticum, "Tide of Trepidation" seems to flow effortlessly into the second track, "Eighty-eight Days in my Veins". The whole disc has a somewhat surreal quality to it. The third track, "The Well-Wisher", has an upbeat quality to it but, again, flows with no apparent break from track number two. In that sense, this disc is long and complex compositionally although the instrumentation remains simple and the performance straightforward. I do want to make it clear that this is still avant-garde jazz. A snippet from the New York Times, published on the Amazon website (where you can still buy the Red Book CD) reads, "Not what jazz was, but a vision of what it can be." It's truly a lovely disc. Music = 10/10, sound = 10/10. I can see why it won the German Jazz Award.
So what about these two [SA]CD's, Tuesday Wonderland and Viaticum? Should you have them in your collection? Well, that depends. I wouldn't go chasing down the SACD of either for $500.00 unless you're a real e.s.t collector and a great SACD enthusiast with a top of the line dCS stack. The CD layer, imported onto my 17" MacBook Pro and played through my Woo WA7 Fireflies/Audez'e LCD-2 combination sounded just fine to me. So I imagine the Red Book CD's are great. It's really about the music. In that sense, it just depends. If you're into avant-garde jazz and are looking for something at the cutting edge, particularly if you like what I've coined that ECM style (even though both of these discs are on the ACT label, who was very courteous to me), I would definitely get Viaticum. You have to be a little more progressive to truly appreciate Tuesday Wonderland; but it's worth it if you are. I'm glad I have both of them although, as I have said many times, I prefer Viaticum. In any case, it's really up to you. For $14.99 per CD (approximately, at this time, etc.), I think it's worth getting both Red Book CD's just to have the exposure to new and different music. I will say that it's a shame that the group is no longer together; and I feel for Svensson's family. Who knows what lovely music the group might have produced?
ACT Music + Vision: http://www.actmusic.com/