Ulf Wakenius: Confessions of A Vagabond

Ian Patterson By

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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 to—not copy them or clone them—but 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 duo—another 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 known—at least outside of Sweden—though 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 lifestyle—a vocation—that 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.
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