5 Ways to Sound Like Esbjörn Svensson

Alex Minasian teaches ways to play like the late Swedish pianist
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The late Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson used a unique brand of harmony that blended elements of European classical music and jazz in his groundbreaking jazz E.S.T. I first became aware of Svensson after seeing the trio open for pianist Brad Mehldau in Boston back in 2002. Svensson’s compositions often incorporate time signatures such as 7/4 and 6/4, and it’s not uncommon for him to alternate time signatures, as well. Not your typical jazz pianist, Svensson blended open chords with ostinato lines, devices that can be traced back to his classical background. In this lesson, we’ll examine his singular sense of harmony.

1. Open Voicings

Svensson’s song “Dodge the Dodo” is a great example of his use of open chord voicings. Ex. 1a shows the voicings he played during the melody. These are open voicings employing the root, 5th, and the 9th of each chord. He used that formula for both minor and major chords on the melody. For the minor quality, the chord is considered a minor 9th chord, and for the major quality, it’s considered a major #11 chord. These are great sounding voicings you can really stretch out over. Check out his use of open voicings for both hands in Ex. 1b.

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2. Colorful Chords

Svensson often employed unusual chord progressions. In the first bar of Ex. 2a, which is inspired by his track “Spam-Boo-Limbo,” we have a Gb major 7th #11 chord in a closed voicing, moving to an Ab minor 11 chord. In bar 2 we see an E major #11 chord moving up a half step to an F major #11 chord. (Svensson loved this sonority and used many major #11 chords in his compositions.) In bar 3, we see two 6/9 chords moving chromatically, starting on D then going to Eb. (Ex. 2b closes up these same voicings and adds the major 7th on top.) Bar 4 concludes with some slash chords—A major in second inversion over C# moving to a Bb major in second inversion over C. This is a compelling chord progression, so Ex. 2c uses what we learned in Ex. 1 and opens up the voicings.

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3. Three-Note Voicings with Changing Roots

A signature sound for Svensson was the use of three-note voicings with changing root motion, as seen in Ex. 3a. Notice here we have a three-note chord of Bb, C and F, and we then change the root throughout the next five bars. This creates a beautiful, cyclical motion without ever moving the right hand. Ex. 3b illustrates the same pattern a whole-step up.

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4. Unexpected Progressions

Svensson was a master of the unexpected chord progression. A good example is his song “Viaticum,” which this example is inspired by. Ex. 4a showcases his classical background, with a lovely chord movement that marries a wide variety of tonal textures. Watch in bar 2 how he moves from the Fmin11b13 chord to a straight F minor chord with ease and an economy of motion. Ex. 4b illustrates the same chord movement in different keys.

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5. Classical Cadences

A variety of classical sonorities found their way into Svennson’s work. In Ex. 5a, notice the chord movement of F minor/C to G7b9/B (basically a B diminished chord) to C minor. Ex. 5b illustrates this same motion in the key of Ab minor.

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“Esbjörn Svensson and his trio had a near telepathic way of communicating, and many of his compositions utilize fugue-like textures with numerous open sections to improvise over,” says Alex Minasian, a New York-based jazz pianist who has performed with artists such as Little Jimmy Scott, Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Billy Vera. Find out more at alexminasian.com.