Monday, 10 December 2007

Ulf Wakenius...

With a name like Ulf he has to be Scandinavian, and in fact he is. Swedish guitarist Wakenius is another of those international sounding musicians who seem to escape their roots and favour something more generic. The Kasper Villaume review below paraphrased Charlie Parker to make the point, but could equally have lifted from Charles Mingus, who directed some prescient sentiments towards European musicians that he felt simply copied the predominantly black styles coming out of America.

Mingus' exact quote, which I forget, probably referred to "white motherfuckers" at least twice, but underneath the racial tension lay an interesting and valid point. He basically implored Europeans to explore their roots and incorporate their own traditional musics into their improvisational language - be it European folk musics or the Western classical tradition. Coming before the birth of 'Eurojazz' as an identifiable style, his remark could almost be retrospectively interpreted as the rallying call to the many Europeans who went on to forge the classic ECM sound in the '70s.

Relying on considerable cross-fertilisation with many American musicians, some of them black, the new sound nevertheless must surely have been what Mingus envisaged. How does Wakenius fit in to this speculative pre-amble, you may ask? Well, normally he's a transgressor who favours the American approach, but on this record, which features the under-rated Lars Danielsson, he is definitely looking closer to home for inspiration.

We're getting close to Christmas and I don't want to be accused of being too seasonal - Santa Claus is rumoured to hang out in Lapland after all - so I really should bring this mini-Scandinavian theme to an end very soon. Next up will hopefully be something completely different...

Forever You

Forever You; Buenos Aires; Arirang; All The Things You Are; Suffering; You Will Always Be Around; Bibor No Azora; Always And Forever; Skylark.

Ulf Wakenius (g); Carsten Dahl (p); Lars Danielsson (b); Morten Lund (d)

Recorded May to September 2003

Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius seems to have been a presence for some time now without ever becoming much of a talking point. First reaching my consciousness through a 1994 session with the heavyweight American rhythm section of Ira Coleman and Billy Hart, Wakenius has since worked and recorded extensively with the late Ray Brown and had brushes with both Hard-bop and fusion.

He now seems to be gradually settling back into his European roots, playing in the pastoral and introspective post-ECM vein. Although ‘Forever You’ credits Wakenius as exclusively playing acoustic guitar, the studio recording process in fact makes it sound more like a clean electric jazz archtop - more Metheny than Towner. The band that Wakenius has assembled for the occasion is sympathetic to his aims of exploring a composition’s lyrical and melodic possibilities to the full. This requires finely honed technique and studied patience, and that they’ve all played together before is evident from their close-knit interplay.

Sadly, however, much of the chosen material is far less remarkable. In a collection where individual selections seem to these ears to be decidedly unmemorable and indistinct, a beautiful interpretation of Pat Metheny’s “Always And Forever’ stands out as the one exception. Though clocking in at under an hour, there still seems time somehow for at least two more introspective ballads than necessary, and after listening carefully to the two unaccompanied standards, ‘All The Things You Are’ and ‘Skylark’, I was left thinking that for all of Wakenius’ great virtuosity, almost any tune would have produced similar results. It must be said however that my own preference is always for a meatier/bluesier post Benson/Montgomery sound from a 'jazz' guitarist, perhaps best embodied amongst contemporary pickers by Rodney Jones.

Strangely, on what is generally a work of almost flawless good taste, pianist Dahl’s closely recorded Jarrett-esque grunting is a pleasant fly in the ointment. More flaws with similar impact, positive or negative, could have made a far more interesting recording. If you’re more sympathetically predisposed to this kind of jazz than I am, Wakenius is worthy of your attention, attention which may yet move him out of the shadows and into the foreground of Europe’s contemporary mainstream.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2004)

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