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Ulf Wakenius - Skeppsholmen - Stockholm, July 2002.
Photo. Jonas Sima

Ulf Wakenius - Swedish world-class guitarist

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Skeppsholmen island was washed by a light drizzle for the Stockholm Jazz Festival concert on Sunday July 21 last year. The hardened part of the audience brought rainwear and when a slight, red-bearded man entered the large scene wearing a cap whose peak pointed impudently forwards, people opened their umbrellas. This solitary musician was the Swedish world-class guitarist Ulf Wakenius, age 45.

For a bit more than 50 minutes he and his instrument were alone on the stage. No other musician would join him in support. There were a few longer solo numbers, a medley that included Skylark, Theme from Spartacus and Georgia On My Mind (a speciality), moving on to Wes Montgomery's Too Late Now, a piece by Miriam Makeba titled Pata Pata and Brazil, Chaplin's Smile and Django Reinhardt's Nuage, followed by a blues piece for Ray Brown. He closed with an Indian folksong named Yaqui.
The listeners were with him the whole way, responding intensely to the music as if transported into a meditative condition. Were they bored or falling asleep? Rather the reverse as many followed his phenomenal finger acrobatics on the finger board and his wonderfully evocative facial expressions with great interest. Well perhaps not all for some seemed to have fallen into a quiet trance, listening with half-open mouths and closed eyes. The music wasn't really difficult, but did call for concentration.
Through this incomparable solo concert Ulf Wakenius provided us with a self-portrait of his musical genius built on his wholly singular talent and instrumental sound.

After the concert I met Ulf and talked things over. He professed himself happy and satisfied with his performance, in no way drained, but in great shape. His happiness stood with him on the quay there with his wife Anna-Lena and his newly born son Carl Ludwig in the pram.

Walking out on a large stage and playing solo for almost an hour smacks of suicidal tendencies. How do you dare?
"Maybe I'm somewhat self-destructive," he laughs. "But when I'm out playing with different groups, I usually take one or a few numbers alone. Seriously though, today was harder. There's a difference between playing a few solo numbers and playing by yourself for 50 minutes."
"This was my first longer solo concert. I've played a shorter, mini-concert during Göteborg's jazz days."

Still, you've recorded two solo CDs on Dragon, namely Enchanted Moments and The Guitar Artistry of Ulf Wakenius. The second one was a real hit!
"That's right. It's done well, meaning that I'll probably do more solo concerts. But you can't get away from how meaningful it is to play with others, communication-wise. It is hard to play all alone on the stage, but just for that reason the reward is all the greater when you succeed. It's simply a challenge for me."

Doesn't it get somewhat monotonous and lonely on the stage?
"Not at all! In truth, there's a lot to say for standing there completely alone."

Ulf Wakenius was born in Halmstad in 1958, but grew up in Götet, obvious from his dialect. He more or less slipped into guitar playing when he bought a Gibson Les Paul instead of a moped. Today he prefers his stick, a Aria Pro II, but also plays his 'gold guitar', a nylon-strung Aria.

Why did you choose the guitar as your instrument?
"I began to play on my mother's old guitar when I when I was eleven or twelve. I remember that it only had four strings. I grew up in the Göteborg suburb of Västra Frölunda where guitarists were a dime a dozen for some reason. Some were a little older than I and my compatriots. They played in a blues band and became our role models. I started in early, playing in a blues jam when I was 13-14. Quite creative really!"

In other words, in the beginning you played blues. Shouldn't you have been playing rock at that age?
"Perhaps, but I was drawn into jazz early on and fusion, a type jazz-rock popular at the time. It served well as a front door for many young guitarists. Once I'd practised and learned that genre, I came into contact with guitarist Wes Montgomery – a fantastic revelation."

You were a recognised guitarist in jazz circles when you were only seventeen. Some jealous colleagues were forced to admit that you must have been born with a guitar in your hands.
"I don't know. What I wanted to do was to increase my knowledge of the instrument. So I started to listed to the greats and predecessors like Montgomery, Joe Pass and Herb Ellis."

But there are great star guitarists in rock as well. Didn't you listen to them?
"They all sounded the same after a while. You get to a certain point when you begin to be receptive to harmonies and sounds. You want to know more. When I heard Joe Pass' Virtuoso record, the one where he plays solo guitar, it blew my mind. Just like Wes Montgomery's chord solos. That's when I knew where I had to go. At that point there was no turning back – my point of no return!"

You weren't interested in earning a lot of money as a rock musician?
"Nope! It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than the opposite. Once I had decided, I did it my way."

Ulf thinks that if he had not become a guitarist, he would have been a drummer. The reason is that just rhythm and timing are basic to his playing. In the mid 80s, he had established his sound in the acoustic duo Guitars Unlimited with the other half Peter Almqvist. After that, his career took off, filling up with 'high pressure jobs', to use his own words.

Was music a part of your home, played music?
"Of course! My mother also played the guitar, really well when it came to old Broadway pieces and the like. My father could work the piano a bit. But I'm not from a family of advanced musicians."

Were there any other sources of inspiration than those you've already named?
"Yep! At the start Django Reinhardt was an obvious one. Jazz opened up a completely new world for me. While swing guitarist Charlie Christian has never been an important part of my musical life, his influence on such artists as Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery has. Still, I have begun to listen to him in recent years. In the beginning it was mainly those I've mentioned plus George Benson and Pat Martino. The list can be long. All own pathos, groove and fire. It was the last I liked most in Montgomery and Benson can still play. And I should name Jimmy Rainey and Tal Farlow, both very much part of the picture. Nor should we forget the poet of jazz guitarists Jim Hall. There are probably other guitarists I've listened to I'm forgetting. However, if I have to pick those with the greatest influence for my own playing, then it's Montgomery and Benson."

Do you have any role models among Swedish jazz musicians and guitarists?
"I think Rune Gustafsson is without peers. If anyone in this country has had an influence on me, he's it. A great performer!"

If Mick Jagger had contacted a Swedish rock guitarist and invited him to play in the Rolling Stones, most anyone would have fainted. That is how Ulf felt when piano legend Oscar Peterson contacted him to offer him a job in his trio. He would follow his old idols Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Joe Pass in the guitar seat.

"Of course I was a bit nervous," he says. "It was a put up or shut up moment."

Where did Oscar Peterson hear you play?
"It probably started when I was on a tour with bass player Ray Brown some five or six years ago. My work with Ray and later with the Danish bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen led to the question from Oscar. One day I received a phone call from his agent who wondered if I could 'consider' playing with Oscar. I answered I didn't need to think about it at all, but could answer yes at once. Though I did get a bit nervous. At the start it felt a bit much, a juvenile dream come true. My first job with Oscar was at Philharmonic in Munich. I went down to the large Bayerischer Hof hotel to rehearse. Oscar came in, sat down at the piano and began to play. After around twenty minutes, he cut us off and said: 'That's enough! See you at the gig.' And then he left. That evening came the first concert and I had no idea what the program was. I never did find out – Oscar just went up on the scene and started to play. I just had to get into it."
"I knew I had the job after that concert!"

Am I right in thinking that Oscar Peterson is the greatest thing that's happened to you in your musical life – a dream, as you say. Apparently your nervousness disappeared, in spite of the short rehearsal. How can one just get into it? Is the jazz repertoire that well known?
"Oscar assumes that you know The Great American Songbook. And I think I can play standards and blues," says Uffe smartly. "Still, you can never be over-prepared. Even if I learned every Broadway melody, it wouldn't be enough. What's needed is a steady mind, keep a cool head and be mentally prepared. Naturally you have to have a feeling for harmonics, be quick and be able to figure out what he's started playing."

Is Oscar Peterson really a difficult musician to play with?
"Not at all. He's best known for his groove and his timing. But he can definitely run off a number of rather advanced chord sequences. When that happens, you've got to be quick on the pick up."

By now you're a natural part of the Oscar Peterson Quartet together with Danish super bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Do you have any idea why he chose you as his group's guitarist?
"I believe Oscar thinks I have a blues feeling and the right groove. He's never cared about the fact that he preferably should have black musicians around him – he's not politically correct that way. Today he has a Brit on drums, Martin Drew from Denmark on bass and a Swede on guitar, all because he likes our sound and groove. That's what he's about!"

You've become Oscar's playing buddy and good friend. When you released your much praised solo CD The Guitar Artistry of Ulf Wakenius, Oscar wrote an appreciative text for the album. It seems you function socially as well.
"Very well indeed. We often have dinner together at his house while he talks about the years with Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum and many other famous jazz stars. I'm sure you understand how great it is to be a part of that. I just sit and take it all in."

Put simply, guitar virtuoso Ulf Wakenius from Göteborg, Sweden, has shaped a world career with Oscar Peterson, one of the last great soloists of his noble jazz generation. Today the master plays few concerts because of his age (78) and a heart attack. When he does he prefers to stay at home in Canada or the USA. Unfortunately, he has stopped making long European tours. But when it is time for a concert, Oscar Peterson calls on Ulf Wakenius – just prior to Christmas last year Ulf was back in the States to play with Oscar at the Blue Note jazz club.

"I see Oscar as a piece of living jazz history," states Ulf as he continues our conversation. "He is the last link and last of the big boys from the jazz era. Once he is gone there will be no one of that stature left, no one who can tell us how it was when Art Tatum came into the hall or similar stories … "

One of the few house gods Ulf has yet to jam with is Ray Charles. But if I know him right, He will fix that too – I know no other Swedish jazz musician alive who has played with so many of the greatest jazz artists.

In addition to Oscar Peterson, you've played with such artists as Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Toots Thielemans, Max Roach, Jim Hall, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, James Moody and Michel Legrand, as well as our own world-class clarinet virtuoso Putte Wickman!
"Absolutely! They're living jazz history too. I feel extremely privileged having jammed with so many of the greats like Milt Jackson and I could make three recordings with Ray Brown before he passed away. I'm proud over that!"

How was it playing with him?
"It was fantastic! I went to New York to record Seven Steps to Heaven (Telarc, 1995) with him in the old CBS studio. I thought we'd discuss the repertoire, but he only asked if I knew this tune and that one. I said OK, I know them. He asked for five minutes, went into a corner of the studio and began to hum to himself. Then he came back and gave us our parts by singing them to us. Then he asked: 'Do you know your part?' Everyone nodded. Then – one, two – we recorded the music. An amazing experience!"
"I asked Ray afterwards if he always arranged that way. 'Of course,' he said. 'They call me the lone arranger!' "

Ray Brown has helped a long list of jazz musicians and helped them in their careers, including pianist Benny Green and vocalist/pianist Dianne Krall. Isn't guitar, and clarinet for that matter, an instrument that challenges or perhaps even tempts the player to virtuosity? The result can be too many notes, almost addicting the instrumentalist to musical circus tricks?
"I understand what you're asking. But I don't think there are fewer equilibristic musicians among saxophonists or pianists, to pick two. Rather I think that the guitar suffers from the existence of an army of rock guitarists who only want to play fast. And an army of blues guitarists who only want to play economically. It's a myth in my eyes that just guitarists should be especially drawn to circus tricks."

Is that so? So you think there is a qualitative difference between playing electric guitar and acoustic?
"No, it depends entirely on the musician. There are different gains on each. It's even possible to get an electric one to sound like an acoustic. There are advantages to both. As you know, I like to alternate. My latest recording was completely acoustic."

So why didn't you get up on the stage at the Skeppsholmen jazz festival with an acoustic guitar instead of the electric one?
"There were technical reasons. You can't get the timbre and overtones from an acoustic that you can get from an electric guitar. Technology simply hasn't gotten that far. But in a studio, an acoustic guitar is better."

The audience for your solo concert today was rather large in spite of the drizzle. But you've played for many thousand more. Last year you performed with the Oscar Peterson Trio in the Hollywood Bowl – a real rock concert atmosphere! And last season you played for Queen Elisabeth in Toronto with the same group, followed by a US tour.
"True. There were 17 000 people in the Hollywood Bowl audience. Since it's one of the classic scenes, next to Carnegie Hall in New York, that was a real experience. It's always fun to travel to the States, to the roots of jazz, play in front of a large, knowledgeable audience and then meet American jazz musicians. It gives me a truly special kick!"

Where are you going as a jazz musician?
"I have a feeling that I'm not standing still, that I haven't gelled. As the years pass I sense that I'm refining my expressions, removing what's not needed, paring down and excluding the excess, in a matter of speaking. And doing new things, like playing ballads. This is where you get a chance to tell a story, to get people to stop and begin to think. It seems to be a mission that I've found – I really want to play ballads, many and often."

Is Ulf Wakenius, the troubadour, around the corner?
"He's nowhere in sight," laughs Ulf. "I'll never be a new Cornelis Vreswijk!"

Ulf Wakenius in 2003:
Releases a solo CD in Japan in March • Records a solo CD for South Korea in April • Tours Japan in June, followed by Latvia and Lithuania • TV duo summer concert from Jazz Baltica with guitar legend Pat Metheny • Jazz gala with Mike Brecker and Christian McBride in Germany in July • Concerts with Oscar Peterson in Hollywood Bowl, San Francisco and in Seattle in August • Release of the jazz film Solo Ulf Wakenius in Sweden Television in the autumn produced by Jonas Sima.

Jonas Sima is a journalist and film-maker.
Translation by Sven H.E. Borei