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Espen Eriksen Trio

You Had Me At Goodbye


by Ian Mann

August 31, 2010


Contemporary, melodic, Scandinavian piano jazz that should hold some appeal to fans of acts such as the Tord Gustavsen Trio or E.S.T.

Espen Eriksen Trio

“You Had Me At Goodbye”

(Rune Grammofon RCD2096)

First released in May 2010 this offering from the celebrated Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is a pleasing example of contemporary, melodic Scandinavian piano jazz that should hold some appeal to fans of such popular and big selling (in jazz terms, at least) acts as the Tord Gustavsen Trio and E.S.T.

Norwegian pianist Eriksen has a wide ranging musical background varying from church organ to work with pop bands. His jazz credentials include work with saxophonist Bendik Hofseth, bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Thomas Stronen of Food fame. He has also acted as pianist and musical director for singer Christina Bjordal and appeared on her international début album “Brighter Days” (2008).

Also from Norway drummer Andreas Bye has worked with many of his country’s leading musicians including Bugge Wesseltoft (keyboards), Hakon Kornstad (saxophones) and Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet). He has also played with international names such as the Americans John Scofield (guitar) and Joshua Redman (saxophones) plus British pianist John Taylor. Bye is much sought after in both the jazz and pop fields and is one of Norway’s most in demand musicians.

The trio is completed by bassist Lars Tormod Jenset who lived and worked in Copenhagen before returning to his native Norway. Jenset plays in a number of groups right across Scandinavia and Iceland and is also a composer and band leader in his own right.

The eight tracks on “You Had Me At Goodbye” are Eriksen originals and in many ways the compositions fall neatly into the Scandinavian stereotype. Folk melodies nestle alongside classical structures, the whole thing imbued with a tangible sense of Nordic melancholia. The opening track “Anthem” immediately invites comparisons with the music of the Tord Gustavsen Trio. The attractive melody seems to hint at the music of the church and Bye’s minimalist drumming recalls that of the Gustavsen Trio’s Jarle Vespestad. Perhaps this is not so surprising, I suspect that Eriksen and Gustavsen may have had very similar upbringings and musical influences. Certainly the music of both men has a quiet intensity and a real beauty- if you like Gustavsen’s music the chances are you’ll like this.

The second track “Grinde” is equally lyrical if a little less solemn and the trio turn in a delicately balanced performance as they do throughout the album. Eriksen’s limpid piano is complemented by Jenset’s sturdy yet lyrical bass playing. The bassist is a sympathetic accompanist throughout but he also delivers a series of beautifully judged solos evenly distributed across the course of the album.

“In The Woods” has a gorgeous folk melody and the subtly propulsive grooves of Bye move the sound to a place somewhere between Gustavsen and Esbjorn Svensson. It should be stressed however that “You Had Me At Goodbye” is an entirely acoustic collection. The electronic enhancements favoured not only by E.S.T but also by many of the trio’s Norwegian compatriots is wholly absent here.

“Masaka Tsara” continues the trio’s progress into more groove orientated territory with some of Eriksen’s most extrovert playing to date. There is something of a feature for Bye and Jenset’s bass is a solid grounding presence. Not that the trio abandon lyricism altogether, this is still a tightly controlled performance with some delightful melodic touches.

“Not Even In Brazil” maintains the mood with the highlight being a delightfully detailed performance from drummer Bye, quietly busy and full of colour and nuance yet without ever becoming showy or overbearing. The selfless nature of the playing by all three musicians is one of this album’s most endearing characteristics. There’s even a touch of humour in Eriksen’s fleeting musical quotes.

As the title suggests “Intermezzo” is the piece that most obviously borrows from the structures of classical music, although it could be argued that the whole album is a highly refined example of chamber jazz. “Intermezzo” is rendered even more beautiful by the melancholy tone of Jenset’s arco bass, though elsewhere on the piece he plays without the bow too. 

“On The Jar” is probably the most straightforward piece on the record, an attractive gospel drenched tune delivered in the now familiar Eriksen Trio house style. It’s a welcome change of pace on an album that, if one was feeling uncharitable, could be said to be in danger of becoming becalmed. Jenset’s muscular solo represents his most forceful playing of the set and is a particular delight.

“To Whom It May Concern” rounds things off and remains totally in character with the rest of the album. Eriksen’s piano is flowing and lyrical, Bye’s drumming delicately minimalist with Jenset’s bass adding a welcome depth to the fragile group sound.

“You Had Me At Goodbye” is an album that seems to have divided critical attention. Some writers and broadcasters, among them Late Junction’s Fiona Talkington and Max Reinhardt, have been charmed, others have dismissed the record as bland, insipid and inconsequential. It’s certainly not a typical Rune Grammofon release. My co-writer Tim Owen who has written elsewhere on this site about some of Rune’s edgier, jazz meets alt rock output by Supersilent, Elephant9, Bushman’s Revenge and others was unimpressed and forwarded the album on to me.

I still can’t quite make up my mind about this album. I can see where the critics are coming from, there’s precious little variation in mood and pace and the stylistic debts to Svensson and particularly Gustavsen are just a little bit too obvious at times.

On the other hand there’s something admirable about the way Eriksen and his colleagues sustain a mood or feeling across the whole album, distilling the essence of the music if you will. The album was recorded by the legendary engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at his Rainbow Studio in Oslo, the place where so many classic ECM recordings were generated. Maybe if this record had come out on ECM some of the critics would have been a little less harsh.

There are gorgeous melodies and some moments of real beauty here, all greatly enhanced by the trio’s “less is more” approach. Paradoxically this is a record that I can level perfectly valid criticisms at whilst simultaneously enjoying it as a fan. I can see myself continuing to play this album a lot as a perfect late night or early morning listen. I’m something of a Tord Gustavsen fan and much the same criticisms have been levelled at him. But I’d still go and see Gustavsen again and I think I’d be more than happy to check out the Eriksen Trio should they ever visit the UK.

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