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Ulf Wakenius: Confessions of A Vagabond

Ian Patterson By

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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 Jarasum—they 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."
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