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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."

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