Ulf Wakenius - Swede dreams come true
Ulf Wakenius is living proof that dreams can come true. As the teenaged Wakenius watched jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson’s quartet in the concert hall in Gothenburg, he dreamed that one day he might sit in guitarist Joe Pass’s chair.
Even at his then tender years he realised that this was the ultimate gig. Here would be a chance to play with one of the real giants of jazz who follows directly in a tradition that goes back to the music’s golden age and golden names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum.
Some twenty years later, recommended by Peterson’s great bass players, Ray Brown and fellow Scandinavian, the late Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Wakenius got the call from Peterson. Last year he celebrated his tenth anniversary in the Peterson quartet with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Wakenius is one of the key players in the month long Jazz from Sweden festival – thirty-five concerts by twelve groups - which arrives in Scotland later this month. Alongside fellow visitors the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t. to give them their now more familiar name) and singer Viktoria Tolstoy, Wakenius has helped to reinforce Sweden’s reputation for producing jazz musicians of genuine international quality.
Back in the 1950s, saxophonist Stan Getz lived in Sweden for a while and returned to America talking up the musicians he had encountered there. Pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, who also settled in Sweden for a time, was equally complimentary and not a little influential, and musicians he touched, including pianist Bobo Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson, went on to work extensively in the international arena.
For Wakenius, who’ll be touring Scotland with a specially convened quartet, the starting point wasn’t actually jazz but blues. As an eleven year old, hearing the prominent players of the late 1960s blues boom inspired him to take up guitar.
"I was aware of Swedish musicians through radio and television, but it was the Americans, such as B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, and the British guys, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, the guitarists from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who excited me," he says. "It struck me that they all had their own individual sounds. You could identify each of them immediately and that individuality was something to aim for."
Well, it was something to aim for until another Englishman, John McLaughlin unleashed his mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra and raised the bar. Wakenius was thirteen or fourteen at the time of Mahavishnu’s first incarnation and was completely swept up in its excitement.
"It was fantastic stuff," he says. "I’d never heard anything like it before with all those Indian flavours and exotic rhythms. After I heard the first Mahavishnu album I went back to McLaughlin’s previous album, My Goal’s Beyond, and I really loved his visionary thing. His whole philosophy inspired me to look further into music and set myself goals. I call him the Miles Davis of the guitar because he was always exploring new areas of music."
McLaughlin inspired Wakenius to delve deeper into jazz particularly. He listened and played along on guitar constantly. The teenage dream-inspiring encounter with Oscar Peterson set him on the professional gig trail.
"I was lucky because, from the age of seventeen, I seemed to be able to survive mostly by playing the kind of music I wanted to play," he says. "I always think that if you have the right focus and determination, you’ll always find a way and other players will recognise these qualities in you."
There were commercial gigs, although being based in Gothenburg rather than Stockholm, his session work never included – he’s always asked this - Abba’s recordings.
"No, we had another group, an instrumental group, who were before Abba, the Sputniks, and I played with them," he says. "But the thing about Abba, although they’re not all that important from a jazz point of view, is that they showed musicians in Sweden that this little country can produce groups that can find a world-wide following."
Working with Oscar Peterson has given Wakenius the opportunity to play not only around the world but in the largest auditoria open to jazz too. The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Carnegie Hall in New York: these are venues that - it comes back to the d word again - he could only have dreamed of playing before.
"It’s the best job in the world," he says. "I think it was Herbie Hancock or Brad Mehldau who said that Oscar is the most influential pianist alive and although he’s getting on in years now, he still has great charisma. He always produces magic and that’s what I’ve always looked for in music. I was always after that bigger than life experience that jazz gives you and for a guy from Gothenburg to be finding that experience by following in the footsteps of great guitarists like Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis is just fantastic."
From The Herald, February 2007.