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All Eyes On

Swede Surrender: Sven Wunder’s New Old Jazz

Swedish musician/producer/composer conjures cinematic and Christmas-y vibes on new LP, 'Late Again'
(photo: John Henriksson)

With his perfectly trimmed red beard, sweater vest, spectacles, and black stocking cap, Joel Danell resembles your hipster teenager’s favorite college philosophy professor. However, the albums the Stockholm-based artist/producer/composer makes as Sven Wunder are anything but stodgy, instead burnishing the vintage sounds of Anatolian rock, Japanese stringed instruments, and Italian library music with just the right modern touches.

Late Again, his fourth album in four years, takes its primary inspiration from the timeless qualities of ballad-leaning jazz, all of it sumptuously arranged by Danell and performed by the same core group of talented musicians with which he’s worked since he was in high school. Like an alternate universe Swedish version of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Danell rarely plays on his own recordings and has never performed live as Sven Wunder, preferring to hunker down in the studio to follow any number of genre-specific muses.

Born to a jazz drummer father and bossa nova-loving mother, Danell is also an in-demand composer whose film and TV credits include the Agatha Christie spinoff Hjerson and the movies Sune – Uppdrag Midsommar and Min Pappa Marianne. This work often rubs off on Sven Wunder, for which Danell maintains and frequently revisits numerous computer folders full of in-progress ideas to eventually release on his own Piano Piano label. “When you write on commission, it’s different because people want a certain vibe or they want it to sound like another artist,” he tells SPIN by Zoom. “But a song written for a movie or TV series can always be rearranged and put it into another context. On the last few records I’ve done, there are quite a few rejected movie pieces that got new clothes and have been used in a more loving environment.”

There’s certainly a cinematic, recorded-to-tape quality to Late Again, on which tracks such as the string-kissed “Take a Break,” “Pop-Jazz Structures,” and the horn-forward “Stars Align” evoke the work of Quincy Jones, David Axelrod, Stan Getz, and even Trouble Man-era Marvin Gaye. Danell initially wrote material he says was more “avant-garde and experimental,” but went back to the drawing board and came up with what feels more like a “Christmas jazz recording with ballads. Those songs take a lot of time to write, at least for me. I had been making more funky and rhythmically driven music in the past few years, and without the help from that vibe, you need to write melodies and harmonies that really move the songs forward.”

To that end, Wunder says he likes to let inspiration take him wherever it may lead in the studio, a process often jumpstarted by his excitement about a certain sound or instrument. “I like that type of workflow,” he says. “I work very much on commission, and it’s nice to have your free space, like, today I want to do something with a tuba or a brass ensemble. You set the limits for what you want to do and you control the the flow and the inspiration as well.”

(photo: Aron Pelcman)

The idea of a relatively unknown Swede crafting top-shelf jazz in 2023 dovetails with the wider visibility of the genre at large, a development Wunder says may be a reaction to increasing use of AI technology in music creation. “Maybe people want acoustic music where they can hear real instruments,” he muses. “Maybe we’re getting fed up with the digital way. There’s a lot of algorithm jazz that’s turning up now for people who want to listen to that kind of music during dinner, and that’s not a bad thing at all. I enjoy easy listening as much as the other guy, but I was also a bit shocked that some soft jazz artists had millions and millions of plays. There’s really happening something there.”

Asked if his friends ever teased him for his dedication to the double bass when he was a teenager and perhaps suggested he listen to something more modern instead, he confesses, “I was really into rap when I was growing up. That was like my first musical love, you know? I grew up in the ‘90s, so I went around with my Walkman listening to Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill. I still do I enjoy that type of music very much.”

So could there be some Sven Wunder hip-hop tracks in the offing? “You won’t be disappointed in the future,” he says with a smile. “I can’t tell you too much, but there will be some some music for me in that direction.” Skydda din nacke!