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Ulf Wakenius: Confessions of A Vagabond

Ian Patterson By

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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."




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