The inventive Finnish-American guitar explorer Raoul Björkenheim recently released “Doors of Perception”, his third album on Cuneiform together with eCsTaSy, his brilliant band consisting of the brilliant drummer Markku Ounaskari – Raoul’s long-lasting partner in art -, the young hyperactive saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, and the bassist Jori Huhtala. “In a way, it is countercultural,” Björkenheim sais to describe this output “It’s an invitation to enter a world that might be disorienting. I don’t hear a walking bass, is this jazz? It might be a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also an invitation.” We joined his invitation and we invite you too. In the meanwhile, we had a chat with his mastermind.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Raoul! How are you?
Raoul Björkenheim: Hi, thanks, almost fine except for a persistent cold which has bothered me for the past two weeks.
Chain D.L.K.: As we’re close to the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, what would you say about the passing year? Best and worst moments of it (particularly from a musical viewpoint)?
Raoul Björkenheim: The best moments were two CD release tours, one with eCsTaSy and the other with my band Triad, a more guitar-oriented trio, featuring two young Finnish talents, Ilmari Heikinheimo on drums and Ville Rauhala on double bass. What can I say? I live for those moments when we play for audiences, and most of the time we had great ones. More best moments were a gig at the Stone NYC in the company of Bill Laswell, Hideo Yamaki, Dominic James and Mike Sopko on the infamous day when Trump was inaugurated…we went to our favorite bar afterward and were shocked to see that we were the only ones there. I was back in NYC in June and played two gigs with one of my favorite drummers, Gerald Cleaver, one of them with my Swedish pal Anders Nilsson on guitar, and the other with Joe Fonda on upright bass. By far the worst moment was the death of a dear friend in May.
Chain D.L.K.: …and what are the most vivid memories of 2017?
Raoul Björkenheim: One of them was seeing the Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Julius Caesar” in June, which led to a lot of heated debate in the press due to its Caesar wearing a red tie and having a terrible hairdo, which made him resemble you-know-who. Another vivid memory was swimming in the Adriatic during a trip to Montenegro…The water is so crystal-clear there that it’s the closest one can get to flying.
Chain D.L.K.: Before focusing on your awesome last release on Cuneiform (“Doors of Perception”), would you tell us something about eCsTaSy and its evolution?
Raoul Björkenheim: I met Pauli and Jori, our sax and bass players, during a fall semester at the Sibelius Academy, where I teach improvisation and ear training. They impressed me so much that I invited them to a jam, which impressed me some more and led to my forming eCsTaSy, so the band’s genesis was eminently natural. Markku was the clear choice for this band, and it was one of those things where everyone was playing great together right from the very first moment.
Chain D.L.K.: What was the creative spark that fired Doors of Perception? Any reference to Huxley’s essay? There’s an Italian edition of it that has a “psychedelic” multicolored cover that came to my mind when I read that your release has been labeled as “kaleidoscopically inventive”…
Raoul Björkenheim: Music reminds us that invisible waveforms can affect our lives and that much that is unseen indeed exists. Huxley’s essay didn’t directly influence our recording, but the desire to create imaginary soundscapes which have nearly visual aspects did. The cover photo also inspired the title in this age of deceitful manipulation of the media by individuals with less than our best interests in mind, when people choose their points of view according to their perception, so one must evaluate the news even more carefully than before. The music is less for curling up on the sofa with and more for marching to the barricades with.
Chain D.L.K.: So what are the main inventions in this kaleidoscope, in your own words?
Raoul Björkenheim: Well, that’s really more for the listener to decide, no? I like to think that instead of the very harmonically influenced thinking dominating most jazz, we subscribe to a more contrapuntal concept. The pieces have quite a broad stylistic range, which contributes to a feeling of many-faceted color, and I like the disorienting effect of the next piece doing something that takes you by surprise.
Chain D.L.K.: I really enjoyed listening to it…it could be interesting to know something about its making… Did you make it in one take?
Raoul Björkenheim: We’re definitely a live band in the studio, but we did take breaks between the tunes, so we didn’t just record the whole album in 43 minutes if that’s what you’re asking. We’d often start with a verbal description of what we wanted to do, and sometimes it would take us a few takes to get the right one; afterward, we created the sequencing. We’ve always included totally improvised material in our live sets, as it often leads to the freshest ideas, and so doing the same thing in the studio feels quite natural.
Chain D.L.K.: Any funny or troublesome moments that occurred during the recording that you’d like to share with us?
Raoul Björkenheim: All the pieces had their share of funny and troublesome moments, but none, in particular, come to mind…
Chain D.L.K.: There are many amazing moments…”Buzz” is one of my favorites, even if it’s the shortest track…what did you have in mind while performing?
Raoul Björkenheim: When we’re playing, the music obviously takes over, so we’re not really involved in intellectual deliberation about what to do next, but in the case of “Buzz,” we came upon the bass and guitar chromatic texture during an improvisation, and we built the tune around that. It was another example of textures that don’t limit the soloist’s choice of expression, and with a soloist like Pauli, incredible things can happen.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s jump to the longest track, “Elemental,” another highlight of this recording… How did you and Pauli understand each other so perfectly?
Raoul Björkenheim: We spend a lot of time improvising together during our rehearsals, and I think we often reach that level where we’re totally in tune with each other. Elemental started out as a rhythmic/harmonic groove set up by my re-tuned 12 string guitar, and on the way, Pauli composed a melody for it, but after several takes trying to use it we decided on just tapping into the flow and creating the form by improvising. That song has really taken off during our live sets and is one of the highlights of our shows.
Chain D.L.K.: There’s a remarkable contamination by somehow exotic elements in your musical stream… there are many moments where you deploy images of distant worlds and reveries from your music into listener’s mind…is it intentional?
Raoul Björkenheim: As I implied earlier, we want to create music that takes the listener on trips, and we all listen to a huge variety of music, so yes, we intentionally put little exotic signals into the music. My influences range from Messiaen’s colorful worlds to Dudu N’Daye Rose’s drumming, from Gagaku court music to Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner, from Melanesian pan pipes to Debussy, and at the moment, I’m infatuated with Charles Ives, whose music can really surprise.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the oddest feedback you’ve received after a performance by the audience?
Raoul Björkenheim: The oddest feedback was playing at a club in Ljubljana and seeing the young women in the front row never taking their eyes off their iPhones, seemingly more focused on updating their Facebook status.
Chain D.L.K.: …and what’s the best critique?
Raoul Björkenheim: During a gig that was far off our route and caused us to have to drive an extra 800 km, we were disappointed to see that only a handful of people came by to see the show, but while we were packing up, a young man stepped up and said that he was a drummer and that our show was the most inspiring thing he had ever seen!
Chain D.L.K.: You’re Finnish-American, leading a group of mainly Finnish musicians… A grotesque invention by Aki Kaurismaki, Leningrad Cowboys, came to my mind… Have you ever intersected with other interesting releases of Finnish culture in your career?
Raoul Björkenheim: I have played with one of the greatest Finnish rock bands, Sielun Veljet (Brothers of Soul), and I was once commissioned to compose a piece for 30 guitars, 8 basses, and 4 percussionists, so I shared solo duties with that band’s lead guitarist, Jukka Orma. The piece was performed in 1995 and is titled “Apocalypso”; you can find it on YouTube under the title “Absolute Guitar.” In the 90’s, I led a band called Krakatau, and that band rocked. I called the music Psyche-tranceic-heavy-metal-ethno-free, and some of that’s on YouTube as well. On top of that, I just completed the film music for a comedy which opens on February 16th; it’s my 10th film!
Chain D.L.K.: I read you’re planning an international tour in 2018…any anticipation?
Raoul Björkenheim: We’re working on it, but it’ll happen more in the fall.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Raoul Björkenheim: At the moment, I’m working on a commission for music to accompany an exhibition of Surrealist Art at the Emma Modern Art Museum in Espoo, Finland, to be premiered in April. I also got a grant to write a book on improvisation for all guitarists, using material found in my twenty-or-so notebooks of sketches and brainstorms. It’ll be ready in 2019.
visit Raoul Björkenheim & eCsTaSy on the web at: raoulbjorkenheimecstasy.net