The Scandinavian jazz scene is full of extraordinary ensembles and unique sounds, and in the middle of it all is the Emil Brandqvist Trio. The city of Gothenburg brought composer, drummer and bandleader Emil Brandqvist together with his two musical accomplices Tuomas Turunen (piano) and Max Thornberg (bass) more than ten years ago, and as a trio they eventually became one of the most important outfits on today’s Nordic jazz circuit.
Their velvety sound, which moves between Scandinavian folk and classical music, captivates listeners in a way that does not rely on any kind of pomposity, but emphasises what jazz from the North is known for: musical simplicity and pure, enchanting melodies. Now the trio have released their sixth album Layers of Life. Given how minimalist their recordings are, the artists are equally modest and down-to-earth in our conversation...
Congratulations, you’re celebrating a small anniversary this year: 10 years since Breathe Out was released! What are your thoughts on the last decade of your musical career?
Emil: Well, it has been a very nice journey so far! The three of us have spent a lot of time together on the road, and have played for a lot of people - something we maybe didn’t expect so much when releasing the first album. We’ve built a good friendship together in the trio, and have made a lot of albums since that first one. We’ve also met so many nice people at the concerts - people who are interested in our music and what we are doing. So yeah, it has been a really good journey.
Tuomas: I agree. This journey has been much more than I could have ever imagined. 10 years ago we were a trio that was mainly playing in Sweden, and Breathe Out was the starting point for a more ‘international’ period for the group. That brought with it so much more than I even dared to imagine.
How did the trio’s first collaboration come about?
Emil: It started with Tuomas and I. Tuomas is originally from Finland but he went to Gothenburg in Sweden to study, where we met. I heard Tuomas playing and I thought: “I need to have this guy in my group!”. Back then, I’d just started the Emil Brandqvist Orchestra and invited Tuomas to play – that was in 2005. Then, one snowy day, I happened to meet Max again in Gothenburg. We’re originally from the same city, so we’ve known each other for many years but then realized that we both live here in Gothenburg now. When the idea to record the Breath Out album came about, we knew we would need a bass player as well. Just as with Tuomas, Max’ bass playing was something I really wanted to have in the music, so I called him and asked him to be a part of the trio, and to record the first album with us. So yeah, that’s kind of the start of our story.
Besides your friendship, can you tell us how your musical work and the communication between the three of you has changed?
Emil: It was already a great match in the beginning but of course, it has developed a lot. For the last four albums we have been working in the same studio together, where we have developed a very creative flow. The studio has its Grand Piano, of course, but also a number of different keyboard instruments, organs and synthesizers where we can be very creative. We’ve also developed our performances. The more we played live concerts the more the communication between us got stronger. I could really feel the difference. I have to be able to count on my performance because at any moment, Max or Tuomas might be there taking it in a new direction. We will follow and help each other. Our friendship helps us in the music - it’s really important for us to feel good and safe on stage together. After the concerts there are mostly happy faces. No one is telling one of the others: “What did you do there?” (laughs)
Tuomas: I don’t live here in Gothenburg anymore which means that we very rarely have the opportunity to rehearse, so the main place where we can focus together and where we develop our musical connection is actually on the stage. Also the fact that when we are on tour, we are often sitting in the car, which means we really have the time to talk and this goes together with this friendship part — being together and not necessarily playing but talking about different things makes our connection deeper. I think that also reflects in our music.
Emil: Also when we are on tour we have a ‘normal’ car and not a van, so three people, a drum kit, upright bass… Yeah, it gets pretty intense. (laughs)
Max: Emil is mostly the one composing these beautiful songs, and that’s the foundation of the whole trio. Over these 10 years I think all three of us have really found a way to focus on the music, and since we’ve also hung out for so many hours we know each other really well. We’ve shared some beautiful moments together, but also some times that were more troubling personally or whatever. We feel very secure with each other. It means there’s no pressure or need to deliver something really special when you go on stage, because we go on stage together and we just try to focus on playing the music, and playing the melodies. I think that’s what we’ve really developed over these past 10 years – it’s more concentrated than it was back in 2013.
Tuomas: Jazz music is quite unique in a sense because it can actually also be quite individual. You have to play great solos and you have to have a certain confidence to show how strong you are. But it’s still like a team. I really feel—as you said—secure and supported. That everybody’s supporting each other. With this group there is just the music; no feeling that you need to show people anything other than what you are naturally.
The last three years have been a very special and difficult period due to the pandemic all over the world, but especially in music. How did you experience the time since your last album Entering The Woods (2020) and how was the process of creating your new album?
Emil: The last album, Entering the Woods, was released at the very start of the pandemic. We had a release tour scheduled and we were really focused on that but of course that didn’t end up happening. Since then it has been a little bit like a roller coaster: going up and down... There were a few windows during which it was possible for us to go out and tour again but it was extremely tough for the whole world and a tough start for the album. Fortunately, we could later continue the tours and play a lot of concerts and music from that album. But not so long after the release of Entering The Woods, I already had the idea for this new album. I was already at the start of thinking about the new music and how we should record and plan it… I had ‘a little’ more time to create these songs and in the end I was really happy with the result. Maybe it was good in some way not to stress about the new things…
Tuomas: Usually we only have one or two years between our albums, so this is the first time there have been three years between them. We are very eager to play the new material!
Where does your musical inspiration come from? All your albums have a close connection to nature and are influenced by Swedish folk and classical music.
Emil: I get inspired in the moment. When I’m sitting down and trying to figure out where to go, what to write and how a piece will end up—that’s what’s really inspiring for me. Just the work and music itself. Of course, you can hear influences from things I’ve been listening to through the years, like jazz music, classical music or pop music. While sitting and trying to compose, what sometimes comes out are these memories of phrases and passages from other pieces of music. But most of the time it comes from my inner feelings — a kind of longing, let’s say, when I want to be near the ocean or in the forest.
Max: You want to be out in the forest or next to the ocean - but you’re stuck in Gothenburg. (all laugh)
Do you prefer the ocean or the woods?
Emil: I love the ocean and the feeling that it’s open and that I can’t see the end. But then in the woods I like the smell and the quietness; the wind faintly blowing in the trees. It’s a hard question, but I think when I stand on the beach and look out at the ocean it’s like one great exhale…
It seems as if your albums - with their connection to nature and their titles - are kind of concept albums. Is this something that is important for your composing?
Emil: No, not at all. In the beginning, the music itself is the inspiration, or if I’m working together with Max and Tuomas we’ll see how the songs develop whilst we’re playing them. But then most of the time the inspiration for the titles—for what the music makes me feel—comes later, when the music is ready. The music tells me where I am and where I want to be. I’ll create the music first, and then I connect it to the world in my head. That’s a very nice experience because then the music becomes something more. When I start playing it and I know for myself that the music is about the forest or my children or something else, then I start feeling it myself even though I wasn’t thinking about it while composing.
Tuomas: In the end, the tracks on one album kind of seem to create one whole, a little bit like a concept, as you said. We haven’t talked about this too much yet, but the concept with Entering The Woods sort of focused around the forest and nature, but this time, for me, it feels like something more personal, given the title is Layers of Life.
Emil: There are different layers: some are on the top, some are deeper down. Relationships and family–they’re deep. The foundation, even. Then you have different layers on top of that. Lying down and listening to the ocean, for example, could be connected to a layer high up but it could also connect to a layer from your childhood or memories from back then. That’s the idea and the feeling I have around the title.
Your music is often described as melancholic…
Emil: The feeling of wanting to be somewhere, or to get somewhere, and not being there could be a melancholic feeling. I mean, it can also be a good thing—to long for somewhere. Maybe I’m a little melancholic… (all laugh)
Tuomas: I think it could also be a cultural aspect – that’s something I picked up on since I’ve been living in France. When I came to Sweden from Finland there wasn’t such a big difference. But in France, when we were preparing a concert with local musicians, they said “yeah we have to have this happy music”. It was almost as if they were afraid to be too melancholic. I think in our culture we are not afraid to show this melancholic side. We aren’t afraid of silence or minimalism, or this kind of thing.
Max: If we’re talking about a kind of Nordic sound or Nordic Jazz (many of our listeners feel like there is a Nordic touch in our music), for me, that connects to the melancholy and the minor keys. The minor moods are a big part of Swedish folk music. I think you are somehow marinated in it, so it’s hard to see what is our personal style and what is part of Nordic tradition and culture. But I think there’s something about minimalism and melancholy which seems to connect the music to Sweden and the Nordics.
Emil, alongside Max and Tuomas you also bring in other musical partners, such as the Sjoströmska String Quartet. Can you tell us a bit more about your musical collaborations — in your recordings and concerts?
Emil: The three of us form the foundation with our improvisations, melodies and rhythm—all the things that are going on between us. But then you could put the color of a string quartet, for example, on top and suddenly something else is happening. As I said earlier, when we’re working in the studio, there is always the opportunity to add different colors with lots of different instruments. On this album, as you mentioned, we also worked with the Sjoströmska String Quartet. Their instruments change the music entirely. I have always been interested in putting together different musical colors and turning the score into something bigger.
Tuomas: I really admire Emil’s ability to do all that work, because there are so many artists who make things the easy way: if you’re three people, you could just go to the studio, record, mix and master the music, then release the album. But Emil is ready to work hard. I’m always really impressed by his ability to start with these simple melodies, but go all the way from that first moment to these big arrangements. Of course, some of the tracks we want to keep just for the trio, but many of the tracks are these big works of art. I think a very important part of that is that Emil has the whole vision and is also ready to do the necessary work—and it’s a huge amount of work! So I think that’s something not many people have.
Max: There are two different journeys going on at the same time. Our recordings in the studio, as well as our live performances. Most of the time it’s just the three of us and it’s often a bit more spontaneous, some parts are even completely improvised. I also often feel like we play with a little more energy at live shows. We take out different aspects of the music and don’t try to reproduce the albums exactly on stage.
What are your future projects?
Emil: At the moment it’s very strange. I haven’t got any new songs for the trio, but hopefully I will start writing things soon for another new album in two years or something. (laughs) The focus now is on the live shows and the release of Layers Of Life, and following up on how the audience will receive this music. This year we’ll continue playing shows in Germany, Sweden, Finland and hopefully France, and seeing how people react to the album.
Tuomas: And I don’t even want to talk about all the other projects we have next to the trio. I wouldn’t dare while the boss is here… (all laugh)
Interview conducted by Lena Germann, 28 February 2023.