Music is life and death. A life without music is meaningless. It’s very important because it can carry you through
your life, in good and bad times Ulf Wakenius
Happenstance may play a role in turning dreams into reality, but anyone who's ever realized a burning ambition will appreciate just how much hard work has paved the way. Two phone calls out of the blue almost twenty years apart opened doors to Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius, that in the first case he could only have dreamt about, and in the second, he could never have imagined.
In 1997, in fairly dizzying circumstances, Wakenius suddenly found himself in pianist Oscar Peterson's quartet, with whom he would go on to tour the globe countless times during the jazz legend's final decade. In 2005, an equally unexpected invitation to play four concerts in Seoul with Korean singer Youn Sun Nah blossomed into a highly successful collaboration that has garnered international awards and, more surprisingly in the world of jazz, gold record sales.
Yet nothing comes from nothing. Wakenius has long been in demand and for good reason. For twenty years prior to the gig with Peterson, Wakenius had honed his craft, from jamming with friends as a teenager in his native Halmstad in the 1970s to recording with bassists Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Ray Brown. Wakenius' own group in the early nineties boasted drummer Jack DeJohnette, trumpeter Randy Brecker, pianist Niels Lan Doky, and bassist Lars Danielsson with whom Wakenius would reunite fifteen years later in Sun Nah's touring quartet.
Since signing to ACT Music a decade ago Wakenius has produced some of the most personal and arresting music of his career. The all-acoustic Momento Magico (ACT Music, 2014), his fifth recording for Siggi Loch's label, may be his best yet. Its music embraces the world that Wakenius has traveled far and wide, and represents as well a kind of resume of the guitarist's key influences.
The idea behind the title is simple enough, as Wakenius explains: "It refers to certain moments that you experience during your life; things that you dreamt about and then suddenly you experience it. Those kinds of moments can happen anywhere and you just carry them with you, like small diamonds in your memory. Like playing duo with Pat Metheny or playing with Oscar Peterson at the Hollywood Bowl, or with Youn Sun Nah at Jarasumthey are magic moments."
Magic Moment is rare in Wakenius' discography, being only the second unaccompanied solo recording he has ever made, following The Guitar Artistry of Ulf Wakenius (Dragon, 2002). The idea to record another solo album had been brewing for a while: "It kind of developed over time," says Wakenius. "I've been playing with Youn Sun Nah a lot all over the world as a duo and at the beginning of the concerts I always play a couple of solo pieces before Youn comes on stage. So, I've had a lot of time to experiment with different tunes and concepts and try to get different sounds out of the acoustic guitar in a natural way. People said 'Why don't you record it?' and I thought I had enough interesting material to record a solo album."
The opening track on Momento Magico is drummer Magnus Ostrom's heartfelt tribute to his former partner in e.s.t, pianist Esbjorn Svensson, who died tragically in a scuba-diving accident in 2008. Svensson's death came as a huge shock to Wakenius, who had been recording Love is Real: Ulf Wakenius Plays the Music of Esbjorn Svensson (ACT Music, 2008) at the time: "We were colleagues for many years and we knew each other pretty well. We met on and off all the time," says Wakenius. "
Wakenius had been a huge fan of e.s.t.: "I love the music. I love the tonal world of Esbjorn Svensson. The 1970s was Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheny was the 1990s and I would say that arguably e.s.t. was the sound of the 2000's. What they did, as I see it, was they mixed traditional piano trio jazz with classical music, English rock like Radiohead and contemporary sounds. They were in their own orbit, so to speak. They started to play for rock audiences, which was unusual for a piano jazz trio." Wakenius explains.
"Then I and Siggi Loch came up with the idea to record e.s.t.'s music. I like impossible challenges. I thought e.s.t. is pretty awkward on guitar, because it's so piano-based so I'll try that." Wakenius contacted Svensson and asked the pianist if he would be interested in writing some string arrangements for the CD: "Esbjorn loved the idea," relates Wakenius, "and he started to write some arrangements."
Then one Saturday in June, tragedy struck: "My wife called me and she said: 'Esbjorn Svensson is dead.' I couldn't believe it. For me it was a big shock and very hard to grasp," explains Wakenius. "He was so vibrant and alive. He was very special. He was a great ambassador for Swedish jazz. It was a big loss. So what started as a collaborative album became a homage to a pianist that had left us."
Eight years on, Wakenius again pays tribute to the spirit of Svensson, and to Ostrom too, whose achingly beautiful ballad is the work of a talented composer who is beginning to carve out his own niche in the wake of e.s.t.'s sad demise with a couple of well received albums under his own name: "It's so beautiful," says Wakenius of Ostrom's "Ballad for E." "It's so clean and there's so much emotion in it. Magnus grew up with Esbjorn, they were childhood friends and he was devastated after the loss of Esbjorn. It took him a long time to start to play again and a long time to write homage, a ballad for his friend. I love it. I just had to record it."
Wakenius also pays touching tribute to guitarist John Scofield's son Evan Scofield, who died at the tragically young age of twenty six after a battle with sarcoma: "I'm quite close to John and this thing brought us even closer," relates Wakenius. "His son's ashes were spread around the world. He had some links to Sweden so John contacted me to take care of Evan's young widow when she came to Sweden to spread the ashes. He was twenty six. It was very moving."
Wakenius's tribute to Evan Scofield, "Requiem for a Lost Son," is a delicate, poignant piece: "I composed it from my heart and I felt it was proper," Wakenius says. "I recorded it and sent it to John [Scofield] and I told him I intended to put it out on my new CD. He and his wife were very happy. They felt honored, so it was a beautiful thing." For Wakenius music has a deeply cathartic role: "Music is life and death. A life without music is meaningless. It's very important because it can carry you through your life, in good and bad times. That's what I'm trying to indicate on this CD."
The music bug caught Wakenius fairly early on in life: "I started when I was eleven years old. Where I grew up in that little place outside Gothenburg there just happened to be a lot of guitar players who loved English blues, [singer/guitarist] John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, guitarist/singer] Eric Clapton and so on," relates Wakenius.
"For me, the contact with music was magic from the beginning. It was not about getting technical command of the instrument or playing fast. We sat outside on summer nights and jammed and this feeling that you could communicate with five or six other guitarists was just magical. I try to carry that feeling with me all the time in my life that it's never about work," Wakenius says. "It's just a blessing and you look for people who you can share this with. For me it was a magic thing when I met Youn [Sun Nah] because she has the same idea."
Nearly a decade after they first met and played together, Wakenius and Sun Nah have recorded three albums and formed a highly successful touring duo/quartet. "Momento Magico," which appeared on Sun Nah's Lento (ACT Music, 2013) is dedicated to the Korean singer: "I wanted to record a homage to her, for everything she's done for me," explains Wakenius. "I combined the influences of Brazilian chorino and Mozart and of course Youn takes it to another level."
Wakenius is well versed in Brazilian musical idioms, having recorded with Brazilian accordionist Sivuca in the mid-1980s and "Momento Magico" is based on multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti's "Frevo," which Su Nah and Wakenius recorded on Voyage (ACT Music, 2009): "Yes, it's a homage to Gismonti and to [multi-instrumentalist] Hermeto Pascoal," Wakenius explains, "but mostly to Youn. I wrote it for Youn and I tried to find new angles for her to use her voice."
Wakenius recalls his first collaboration with Sun Nah in Seoul in 2005: "When we started to play the connection was instant. I have seldom heard a voice like that. The combination she has with her technical ability and her magic ability to get it out from the stage. Wow! This is something special. It's something else."
In an All About Jazz interview with Sun Nah in 2010, the singer credits Wakenius with providing the impetus to record together. Voyage was an instant success, musically and commercially: "We had a great chemistry," explains Wakenius. "It started there and it took off. When you play duo it can really be magical. You can't have telepathy in a quintet or a sextet because there are too many people and too many wills to be able to communicate fast but when we play it's like one person. If the sound is right it's just a magic ride. I'm blessed to experience it. It's very special."
With Sun Nah, Wakenius has played in South Korea numerous times since 2005 and he has grown very fond of the country and its people: "They're very open when they listen to music and there response is very direct," notes Wakenius. "It's been really fantastic to be able to be there on and off all the time for ten years."
A highlight for all musicians playing in Korea is the Jarasum International Jazz festival, which for its tenth edition in 2013 drew an astonishing 240,000 people over three days: "Jarasum is a fantastic experience with all those people," enthuses Wakenius. "When you play in certain parts of Europe there are really old people in the audience but in Jarasum you have thousands of young people. Last year we played as a duo to over ten thousand people at Jarasum and the average age was twenty two or twenty three. It's amazing."
Wakenius is impressed by the enthusiasm of the young Korean jazz fans: "I was on a plane from Europe to Seoul, sat beside a young Korean girl and we started to chat. I said I was going over to play with Youn Sun Nah and she said: 'Oh, wow, we go to Jarasum every year.' They took a car from the southern part of South Korea and traveled up, took a weekend pass and then traveled back during the night of the Sunday to their southern town. They arrived at 5am and started work two hours later on the Monday. It's magic. They're special people."
Despite the mind-boggling numbers that attend the JIJF every year, jazz still struggles to gain mainstream exposure in South Korea: "Of course, K-pop is the big thing," acknowledges Wakenius, "but Youn has influenced many people, so slowly but surely jazz is gaining recognition in Korea and of course [JIJF founder/director] JJ's work with Jarasum is fantastic."
Asia is a part of the world that Wakenius finds himself increasingly touring in, and on Momento Magico it's the influence of Chinese music that's felt on "The Dragon": "When I was in China with Youn I was flabbergasted by the sound of the [four-stringed lute] pipa and I tried to capture some of it on "The Dragon."
Whether it's Chinese traditional music, Indian music on "Hindustani Blues" or West African influences on "Mali On My Mind," Wakenius' music has absorbed something of the sounds of the musicians he's met and the countries he's traveled in.
"I would say that my sound has changed a lot. I'm in constant transition. If a person travels the world and you ask them, do you think your personality has changed? I think they would say 'yes, I have changed as a person because of all the impressions I've had.' I think it's the same with the guitar. I hear so many great sounds and I try tonot copy them or clone thembut I try in an organic sense to melt them into my expression. That's how it works."
The chance to record with musicians form other cultures around the world appeals to Wakenius: "If the opportunity arises, then yes, but it's more like destiny. It's nothing I'm running after. I'm trying to write my own music and I do many different projects but I wouldn't hesitate if I got the chance."
One musician that Wakenius is hopeful of recording with, should the opportunity present itself is his son, Erik Wakenius. Erik has recorded with his father before but it wasn't until the Penang Island Jazz Festival in Malaysia in 2010 that they first played together as a duoanother magic moment for Wakenius senior.
"It was very hot but it was wonderful to look across at the other side of the stage and see your son. It was a beautiful feeling. It's just lovely to be corrected by your son on certain things," Wakenius laughs. "We had a wonderful chemistry," Wakenius recognizes. "Erik's very talented and he's one of the few guitarists who can play the stuff I do on the record how I want it. If the opportunity to record arises with ACT we'll do it, or with some other company."
Another striking tune on Momento Magico is bassist Lars Danielsson's "Liberetto." Wakenius and Danielsson go back many years together and have collaborated on numerous occasions: "What I like about his music is that it comes out of the Swedish lyrical tradition and the folk music," explains Wakenius. "He's very melody-oriented and he writes exceptionally beautiful melodies. He has his own tonal language, I would say, and it just appeals to me."
What links Danielsson's "Liberetto" with Wakenius' take on Erik Satie's "Gnossienne" and "Preludio," the guitarist's short tribute to pianist Keith Jarrett are the hybrid, jazz, folk and classical strands in Wakenius' voice: "It's a kind of evolution. You keep involving more elements," explains Wakenius. "I've been listening to classical music and folk music all my life so it's just very natural for me to put it all in the melting pot. Sometimes I'll write a tune that focuses more on classical and sometimes I'll write a tune that has a more Swedish, lyrical, folkloric touch but I like to deal with these different elements. I think it's beautiful."
Jarrett has been a major inspiration for Wakenius, so much so that the guitarist interpreted the pianist's compositions on Notes from the Heart. (ACT Music, 2005): "It's his lyricism," explains Wakenius. He really treats a ballad like a newborn baby. Every note counts. You don't shine technically on a ballad. A ballad is to tell other people your most inner thoughts, so for me it's like a religion to play economically and really tell a story with every note. I learned that from Swedish folk music and I think Keith Jarrett has that very strongly in his music, especially when we talk about his original music."
A lesser knownat least outside of Swedenthough hugely influential jazz figure who combined folk, classical and jazz influences in his playing was Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, who died aged 37 in 1968: "Ah! He's magic," exclaims Wakenius. I love him. Every time you put on Jazz Pa Svenska [Megafon, 1964], Jazz in Swedish..." Wakenius is a little lost for words attempting to sum up the impact of Johansson's recording with bassist Georg Riedel of Swedish folk songs that to date has sold over 400,000 copies.
"It has this crossover appeal," says Wakenius picking up the thread. "You don't have to be a jazz fanatic to like it. My wife likes other stuff but she plays it all the time. He's one of our jazz fathers. It's also how I try to play, the way he presented a melody, with just an upright bass behind him. That's exactly what I'm talking about. You just play a single line and carry it through. Esbjorn [Svensson] was extremely influenced by Jan Johansson. I think Jan Johansson and Keith Jarrett are the big connection between me and Esbjorn. We both love those guys."
On Momento Magico the America jazz tradition is represented by the composition "Notes for OP and Wes," Wakenius' tribute to his former boss Oscar Peterson, and to Wakenius's primary guitar influence, Wes Montgomery: "If you talk about classic jazz guitar players I would say Wes was the guy I loved most because of his melodies and his way of presenting a melody. For me, he and Jim Hall are the jazz guitar players who are closest to Keith Jarrett because of the way they played a melody. It's so beautiful, so poetic. Those two guys and Joe Pass also was a true guitar genius. He could just sit down and make magic with the guitar. Those three guys were very important for me."
Wakenius relates the story of how he got the job in Peterson's trio in 1997, following in the footsteps of guitarists Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Pass: "I was called up by Peterson's agent and he said: 'We want you to join the Oscar Peterson group and we want you to be in Munich Philharmonic in three months.' I asked: 'What about the music?' He said, 'Don't worry about the music but think about wearing a tuxedo.'
With no more information than that to go on Wakenius bought all the recordings Peterson had made in the previous fifteen years to learn the pianist's repertoire. Having learned a bunch of tunes Wakenius duly made his way to Munich where he met up with Peterson at the hotel: "We rehearsed for fifteen minutes and then he said: 'Sounds good. See you at the concert." And he left.
"The evening arrives and I don't have a clue what I'm going to play," says Wakenius. "There are seven thousand people in the audience and they've paid a lot. We start and the problem is that Oscar always played whatever came into his mind. He wasn't out to put me on the spot but he just plays what he feels and he starts to play his original compositions and they weren't on the fifty CDs I had bought so I was completely in the dark."
Wakenius dragged himself through the concert on instinct but the way he was feeling he was sure it would be his first and last gig with Peterson: "I was sure I was going to get fired but he was very pleased. Finally, the drummer from London [Martin Drew] said: 'Congratulations my friend. You have walked through the ring of fire,' Wakenius recalls laughing.
The firey baptism that Wakenius went through proved to be an invaluable learning experience: "I learned more on that concert than in twenty years," says Wakenius, "because I learned that you can never protect yourself against the unknown. Something always happens and you can't prepare yourself. You have to be loose and take it as it comes. Afterwards, I can say it was a fantastic experience."
Wakenius describes Peterson as the [classical pianist] Arthur Rubenstein of jazz and the ten years Wakenius spent touring with Peterson and NHOP are today cherished memories: "They're like icons and you just jump on their train and suddenly you are at all the places you dreamt about all your life. You know it can't stay like this forever so you just enjoy the ride. I was very fortunate that I was the last guitarist with Oscar for ten years and it was a fantastic, wonderful ride."
Peterson and NHOP died within two years of each other, and Wakenius found himself out of arguably the best guitar job in jazz: "People asked me: 'What are you going to do now?' But the strange thing is that after that I played even more. My career didn't stop. I had ten other different projects. One year after Oscar died I was given the steel guitar you hear on Momento Magico. It was like destiny. This is your new route. This is what you're going to do now. I started to reinvent my style a little. I met Youn [Sun Nah] and the rest you know.
"I was just open to new influences and I didn't want to be an Oscar clone for the rest of my life. I wanted to find my own voice but I was grateful and I still pay homage to him and once in a while incorporate stuff from him. But I don't want to be in a museum band."
New influences, however, can be old in origin, as another song on Momento Magico demonstrates. American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez' haunting "Sugar Man" comes from his debut album Cold Fact (Sussex, 1970). The inspiring story of Rodriguez's reemergence from years of obscurity is beautifully related in the late Swedish film director Malik Bendjelloul's documentary Searching for Sugarman (2012). Wakenius, like so many others, came to know Rodriguez's music through the film: "When it started I thought, 'Agh! This is just another hype' but when the music started I felt in two seconds, 'Oh shit, this is something! This is the real thing.' When I heard his voice I got goose bumps immediately. These tunes have something special, for me."
There's no chance of any dust settling on Wakenius. Vagabond, the title of Wakenius's 2012 release on ACT Music fairly sums up a lifestylea vocationthat keeps him on the road for large chunks of the year. Whether touring as a duo or in a quartet with Sun Nah, or playing with his son, Wakenius is always looking to interpret new material and seek new possibilities from his acoustic guitar.
Busier than ever, the road beckons Wakenius once more. There are upcoming dates across several continents with Sun Nah, in duo and quartet settings, and in Doha with the Doha Symphony Orchestra. There are duo gigs in Italy with French accordion player Vincent Peirani and in Scotland with fellow guitar great Martin Taylor. Then Wakenius leads his quartet of pianist Lars Jansson, drummer Paul Svanberg and double bassist Jesper Bodilsen on a number of dates: "It's an extremely busy year," the guitarist admits. "Basically I'll be in maybe twenty different countries," he laughs. It will be a continuation of the vagabond life."
Nobody could ever accuse Wakenius of resting on his laurels as he pin-balls his way around the planet in any number of different settings. A vagabond existence it may well be, but one marked by many magic moments along the way.
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