An Interview With Nocturnal Jazz Giant, Sven Wunder

The Stockholm-based composer and producer arrives right on time with Late Again, a rich jazz and lounge record suited for cozy afternoons, Miguel Otárola writes.
By    October 9, 2023

Image via John Henriksson

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Miguel Otárola was not prepared for a Twins playoff run happening the month before he gets married.

At the age most kids are starting tee ball or piano lessons, Sven Wunder was down in the basement of his childhood home in Stockholm watching jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz jam out with his dad on the drums.

“They always rehearsed down in our basement when I was growing up,” says Wunder – whose real name is Joel Danell – of the world-renowned musicians his dad would bring over to play. “It was a very nice way to get in contact with music at an early age.”

They’re experiences he wouldn’t take for granted. At 39, he’s a composer who writes soundtracks for film and TV from his Stockholm studio. As Sven Wunder – an artist name which he says is not based on Stevie Wonder, by the way – he produces rich, decadent instrumental music that spans styles from across the globe.

His albums have explored traditional Turkish music (2019’s Eastern Flowers), Japanese jazz (2020’s Wabi Sabi) and lush movie soundtracks (2021’s Natura Morta). His newest, Late Again, released last week on Piano Piano Records, ventures into gentle ballads, lush hip-hop instrumentals and ballroom jazz. It’s the kind of music that adds another dimension to your life, whether you’re writing emails at work, laying on the couch or having your friends over for dinner.

For Wunder, it all stems from his deep love for and knowledge of jazz, classical and folk. He has a particular fondness for movie soundtracks by Italian composers from the 1960s, as well as the “library music” that was used in the mid-20th century for television, radio and other visual mediums.

Music like this isn’t exactly rare, and acts like Thievery Corporation and Khruangbin have reached stardom with their own takes on non-Western grooves. But Wunder’s oeuvre stands apart from that of his contemporaries: he places more attention on the fidelity of a recording and the performances of his musicians. Like Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose Call Me By Your Name indulged in the quaint, rustic landscapes of his home country, Wunder sets out to create a complete and lived-in picture, lavish in color, texture and history.

Late Again fine-tunes his compositions even more, showcasing simple and elegant melodies that sound as if they’ve existed for decades. “Take A Break” begins as a straightforward hip-hop beat but blossoms into seductive lounge led by scintillating strings. The album’s middle section has several prominent flute solos. Backing horns, a vocal choir and featherweight drums gives standout “Stars Align” the lively sway of an Arthur Verocai arrangement.

“Stellar Plates” and “Asterism Waltz” wind the album down to starry jazz lullabies. The former builds around a wondrous piano motif while the latter features a twinkling guitar melody in the vein of Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. The titular closing track is a piano soliloquy similar to the omnipotent soundtrack work of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto. In this graceful final third, Late Again transcends to the level of Wunder’s own musical influences. Listening to it, you can feel the worries and responsibilities lifting off your shoulders and evaporating into the night sky.

“The texture of a recording is the first thing I hear when I try to find new songs,” Wunder says. “You can hear it in just one second, if I’m going to like the song or not. For me, that’s very important.”

When Wunder and I spoke over Zoom, Late Again was still weeks from release. In it, he talks about his upbringing, seasonal favorites and the virtues of easy listening music. Our interview, edited and condensed for your reading pleasure on POW is below.

Did you grow up in Stockholm?

Sven Wunder: I grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, in a music family. My dad is a jazz drummer. So I started with music pretty early in my life.

That’s excellent. Did he play for a band or a combo or was he a session musician?

Sven Wunder: Both a bit. He was a touring musician. He played with Swedish jazz bands, but also international artists when they were here playing. He toured with [saxophonist] Lee Konitz, for example, when he was here. They always rehearsed down in our basement when I was growing up. It was a very nice way to get in contact with music at an early age.

Not everybody gets that experience.

Sven Wunder: No. It’s a gift.

It was my dad who put me in music school. Here in Sweden, when you’re 8 years old you can choose an instrument and start to study it at school. He was like, “He wants to study bass.” Because then we could be a rhythm section [together]. [Laughs.] These days, I don’t really play it that much.

When did you start composing more and playing more with piano or guitar?

Sven Wunder: I went to music school and started jazz and after that— I wasn’t fed up but you can get a bit like, ah, there’s something else. I would like to do music in another way. I took a year off: Worked taking care of elderly people, learned to play piano and started to write songs, and then I started to make instrumental piano pieces. This is like, 20 years ago or something.

That led to making music to some short movies, and then that led to making music to other pictures and stuff like that. It’s been a journey since then.

I hope you don’t take this in the wrong way: I was listening to your music and was really hearing Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve.

Sven Wunder: That is some great music there. But they also used [composers] like Piero Umiliani: big, big guys for me, that have meant a lot to me.

[Late Again] is a collection of nocturnal jazz pieces. I’m curious to know what nightfall is like where you live and why you gravitated toward it so much.

Sven Wunder: During winter and everything, the sun sets at two in the afternoon. So a huge part of the year, you’re really in that vibe, like, lament. Lament music works very well.

Music for me is very season-based, I would say. Now it’s turning into autumn here and as soon as that switch comes, I can really feel like, [SIGHS] now it’s jazz season. It starts now. I don’t really know what it is, but during summer I don’t listen to that type of music that much.

This is that transition into fall.

Sven Wunder: Yeah, exactly! And then it has some sort of climax around Christmas. Then it’s really strings and jazz ballads with strings and vibes and choir and everything. With spring, then comes the samba again and the Brazilian music and all that stuff.

It sounds like you listen to records all the time.

Sven Wunder: I listen to a lot of music. Very much. I spend all my money on vinyl records. I can really get inspired by art and movies and other things, as well. Maybe it’s a boring answer, but it’s everything in my life, almost. I sit here and work the whole day, and then as soon as I walk out of the office I put on my headphones and I listen to music. I never get tired of it.

For Late Again, was there some sort of thesis or goal behind the music?

Sven Wunder: I worked a very long time on this record. I had a hard time putting it together and I tried different angles; I had to rebook the studio and go back and record again, which is not common for me.

But I got back in the studio and did some complementary recording. I felt confident enough to make a more laid-back thing, to not be afraid of too many ballads and too many soft tunes.

I saw a little teaser video of you listening behind the studio and hearing some of the tracks. You’re working on mixing things or making some sort of decisions— I don’t know. What are you listening for?

Sven Wunder: This really is the hard thing. This is like, where the alchemy gets in. Because suddenly you just hear, this sounds right. Of course it could be the groove and stuff like that, and also that musician playing the song right. It’s very hard to describe what’s good with one take and why another take is not good. Maybe that is where taste and production gets more involved. I like strong improvisation. When a musician gets a great solo, I often go for that take. Because that’s impossible to recreate.

It’s totally different, I think, from the Eastern Flowers album you had a couple of years ago. It does sound like you wanted to make a different type of music.

Sven Wunder: You have to follow your inspiration. I studied and played a lot of music from this region — Turkish music and Eastern European music — for many years. I played in a lot of bands like that. That music for me is almost as natural as the music I grew up with and studied, like jazz. So for me, it’s not a big difference. I can come up with a song idea that includes more Turkish melody lines and then be very into writing jazz ballads. I can understand that it seems like it could be two completely different artists. I want to put my focus where I feel inspired at the moment.

Music like library music or jazz— sometimes it has a negative connotation, right? People are maybe used to putting it on in the background while they’re going about their day.

Sven Wunder: I have never had any problem with easy listening or library music and stuff like that. I appreciate that music very much. Or like, listening to Erik Satie or something that’s like wallpaper music. I like that very much.

Why do you like it?

Sven Wunder: I like when it’s a good song. The production and the orchestration of, let’s say, a Les Baxter track: As long as it’s a good song, then I love listening to it.

The thing with library music and background music you hear in those Spotify playlists: It’s made for like, not noticing. When you listen closely, it’s nothing there, sometimes. But if you listen to Satie’s wallpaper music, there’s a lot there and it’s very interesting — even though it’s a very soft piano playing a very soft melody. But I’ve never had any problem with that term of “easy listening.” I enjoy easy listening music. Like, soft strings. Who doesn’t like soft strings? And if it’s a good tune, as well, … of course you need a beat…

Where has your career taken you? I’m curious to know. Have you traveled around the world?

Sven Wunder: Eh, no. [LAUGHS.] I barely ever leave Sweden. But I would love to go around. We don’t have a live act at the moment, mainly because I’m using most of the time that I have with my musicians to compose and rehearse new music and record a new record instead of going on tour. It also hasn’t really worked with my own schedule working with movies or music for other things, and also having a family.

Well, hopefully you can make your way to the United States soon.

Sven Wunder: Would love to. I would love to.

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