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Raoul Björkenheim - One foot in each world

by Jan-Erik Holmberg

Raoul Björkenheim is a guitarist and composer in a constant search for new levels of expression. This versatile musician is at home on two continents and in various musical styles. For him, improvisation is a matter of life philosophy and music should have true personal value.

In an old TV movie, Raoul Bjorkenheim is playing with tin soldiers at home and pushing off a miniature boat in Central Park. The year is 1963, two years after moving with his mother, the only Finnish Hollywood star, Taina Elg, from his birthplace of Los Angeles to New York City.

Fifty years later, it’s about 9am in the Big Apple when, via Skype, I reach the guitarist, composer and educator, who is having his coffee and a bagel. One of the things that define Bjorkenheim is the fact that he has one foot on each continent. He has lived equal amounts of time in Finland and New York.

As a child, he spent the summers with his father Carl Bjorkenheim in Finland, and even stayed for a winter at the age of five. After finishing elementary school in New York, he attended the French school in Helsinki for a year. Then, some more intercontinental commuting: back to LA, and in 1971 again to Helsinki and high school. Seven years later, after studies at the Helsinki Conservatory, he was ready for Boston and Berklee College of Music.

Nowadays he visits NYC some three times a year, staying for at least 10 days per visit. One reason is of course to visit his mother, but keeping in touch with friends and playing is also important.

 “I usually try to organise some things when in New York. This time I had a gig at the I-Beam in Brooklyn with the Finnish saxophone player Mikko Innanen and the New York drummer Weasel Walter, but I also met my friends, had lunch with Bill Laswell and went to the Visions festival to listen to Gerald Cleaver and Hamid Drake.”

A variety of aesthetics

All three are musicians who have collaborated with Bjorkenheim. The monster bassist Laswell is, with Swedish drummer Morgan Agren, part of Blixt, a power trio featuring a steady rhythmic pulse and metalesque aesthetics, with improvisation in the spotlight. Bjorkenheim is busy playing and recording with many line-ups. Scorch – with Norwegian Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on bass and Chicagoans Frank Rosaly on drums and Mars Williams on saxophone – and the Bjorkenheim–Parker–Drake trio employ the same improvisatory methods as Blixt, but all three sound different.

At times, Scorch can sound a bit like a rubato take on Hendrix, but industrial roaring or strange, desolate sounds are also heard. In the third trio, the music is underpinned by the spiritual and powerful playing of master drummer Drake and essential avant-garde bassist William Parker. They play a brand of jazz that can be both hard-swinging in a traditional way, and freely flowing in a creative way.

A different approach is taken in the duo with percussionist Lukas Ligeti (the son of Gyorgy Ligeti), where you can find both musicians playing with a bow – on guitar and cymbal.

Music for larger ensembles has been a part of Bjorkenheim’s career almost from the beginning: in 1991, he premiered his big-band work Primal Scream, commissioned by UMO Jazz Orchestra.

Not just making it up as we go along

One challenge in playing improvised music is to maintain a form. With Blixt, Bjorkenheim admits, it sometimes can get a bit jammy. However, in a band with a reference point to rock, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In Blixt, much of the idea is to create massive volume for bigger stages.

 “I told somebody who had not heard the music before that it’s all improvised, and he answered that, yeah, it sounded like that, which I thought was funny.” This leads to a discussion concerning the virtues of improvisation, a subject on which Bjorkenheim has a lot to say. “I think that improvisation is really a matter of life philosophy, like how do you make a great dinner with a can of peas and a package of spaghetti. To me improvisation implies an attitude of making creative use of the materials at hand, and by doing so occasionally coming up with something brilliant, something that couldn’t have been preconceived, and surpasses what one could have even imagined.”

He feels that the masters in the art of musical improvisation can attain that level on a regular basis, and attaining as high a level as possible is his ambition.

 “I’ll never forget the moment in a jazz concert when Arthur Blythe reached the high note of his solo, causing Jack DeJohnette to unleash an explosion on the drums resulting in everyone in the room experiencing a group climax by standing up and shouting in ecstasy!” Listening to wonderful improvisers such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, Keith Jarrett, Bismillah Khan, Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin has inspired Bjorkenheim and energised him to pursue this form of poetry. But where’s the key to this kingdom of creativeness?

 “One important argument is that, as an improviser, you learn your instrument on a very deep level. You not only have to know where the notes are, but have to reach the notes that you’re hearing in the rhythm you’re feeling at the instant that you’re hearing them.”

Merely knowing your instrument like the back of your hand is not enough; you have to assimilate a wide knowledge of musical styles and invent your own melodies, harmonies and forms. “You’re always discovering new sounds, new stories and new levels of expression on your instrument, and that’s what makes improvised music so fascinating to an alert listener. But you too have to remain alert and never be satisfied with your early gains, always searching.”

The first record Bjorkenheim played on was Edward Vesala’s Bad Luck, Good Luck with UMO. The four studio hours reserved for the guitar parts became 13, without a lunch break. It was a tough first session but an important learning experience. Vesala definitely had highly original ideas and knew what he wanted. He didn’t want basic rock or jazz guitar. The instrument was used as a sound source, or noise source.

 “The most important thing Edward taught me was to stop playing akin to some of my favourite musicians at that time, like John Scofield and Pat Metheny. The obvious reason for this was that Scofield and Metheny already played like Scofield and Metheny.” That probably led to the band Krakatau, which made four albums in the early ’90s – two for the prestigious ECM label.

Notes, scales, sounds and styles

Raoul Bjorkenheim is a very versatile musician, with a stylistic range that goes from blues, rock and jazz to orchestral music. That can make the picture of him as a musician complex and maybe even hard to grasp. Listening to Bjorkenheim from only one recording or in one particular line-up does not tell the whole story. The common denominator is however his own sound and style.

The different musical contexts of course demand different approaches. Playing with an orchestra is a different game, not only as regards following the piece and reacting to cues from the conductor.

 “When I play with an orchestra I have a tightly written part to play, I am not playing any totally free improvised stuff. I have some small things that are improvised and usually based on a set of notes, which I guess you could call a scale but they are not always recognisable scale forms – they are often called intervallic structures.” In a practical situation, the guitarist can be facing a sheet of music with a number of notes, sometimes ordered, but without time values. Also, symmetrical scales such as the Messiaen scales (e.g. scales of limited transposition) are common when Bjorkenheim works in a classical context.

 “In my orchestra piece Situations, which we performed with John Storgards, there is a section that involves whole-tone soloing. I like that section – it’s a bit limited cause you only have six notes to the octave, but it’s six nice notes!”

Less is more, and limitations can work in the opposite way to what you would expect. “A good improvisation is not necessarily a thousand ideas, but maybe two or three good ideas that are varied.”

When saxophonist Jacam Manricks invited Bjorkenheim to come and play at a festival in Portugal last autumn, his knowledge of scales was put to good use. “Manricks’ charts were really difficult. He was using like the third and fourth mode of harmonic minor, which is something you don’t see that often. But in most of the bands there’s no preset plan of what scale or which chord to use – mainly I use my ears and the fingers follow.”

Then again, when working with the organist and singer, Finnish prog legend Jukka Gustavson for the album Community Jazz, the guitarist had to spend some quality time at home practising the tunes.

 “He had written some very difficult pieces which have definite harmonic areas and chains of chords. I suppose I’m thinking about scales and fitting in things when I practise the tunes, but then, once I’ve gotten it into my blood, I don’t think about it any more – I just play.”

The tools of the trade

Let’s indulge ourselves in gear – The Axes – for a while. A saxophone or a trumpet usually sounds pretty much like you would expect, but when talking about guitars you can never be sure of the basic sound (or even the number of strings, for that matter).

While most jazz guitarists traditionally stick to classic semi-hollow or hollow-body arch-top models, Bjorkenheim has several basic colours on his palette. One of his favourites is the Parker Fly solid-body electric guitar, which he has been using a lot, owing to some special benefits, both practical and musical.

 “One of the amazing things about this instrument is that the frets are made of stainless steel, so I can do all of the tapping things without wearing down the frets. If you do that on a regular guitar with nickel frets, you won’t have any frets after a while. It’s also very light and has an excellent tone, but one special feature is the extra piezo microphone that allows you to switch from an electric sound to an acoustic – or even playing both sounds simultaneously in stereo.”

Furthermore, the instrument is easy to play with a bow, a technique that Bjorkenheim has been pioneering for the guitar, playing long notes and crescendos. He also uses a traditional semi-acoustic guitar, a Hagström Viking, a model that also was used by Frank Zappa – and Elvis Presley. This guitar, which helps with phrasing in a jazz style, is used with the band Ecstasy. Bjorkenheim mentions Ecstasy with Pauli Lyytinen, Jori Huhtala and Markku Ounaskari as his main project for the time being. The group went into the studio last December and the record will be released in January.

Bjorkenheim has also done a lot of research on his 12-string guitars, sometimes using nearly chromatic open tunings for cluster-like effects. These will be heard on his new double-neck Gibson, which will be featured in the new trio with Ilmari Heikinheimo and Ville Rauhala, set to debut in 2014.

In general, Bjorkenheim thinks that the guitar is a super instrument – you can carry it around, you can have different types of guitars with different personalities. “There are limitations to the guitar, but when you look at it the right way the limitations mean freedom. You can’t do everything with a guitar, so you concentrate on the things you can do with the guitar – and there’s a lot of things you can do with the guitar. I’ve never had any problems with the limitations. I call my method Investigative Guitarism.”

The public saxophone

The Guitar Hero number one, Jimi Hendrix, who has meant a lot to Raoul Bjorkenheim, used to end his band introductions with “…and yours truly, on public saxophone”. It seems to be a fact that many of the better jazz guitarists tend to phrase like saxophonists – or wind players. The reason for this is probably that wind players phrase naturally, as in when a person speaks. That is necessary as the human lungs only can carry so much air, which gives rise to the necessity of breathing.

For Bjorkenheim, saxophone players are definitely an influence and inspiration, more so than guitarists are. “John Coltrane would be my main influence, even generally speaking. While there are many other great players, his passion and emotion just overwhelm me.”

Other favourites include Charles Gayle, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter, but also the completely different playing of Jan Garbarek is very important to the guitarist. The legato style is however not Bjorkenheim’s only trick. Lately he has been working on two-handed tapping techniques. “The guitar will really become a percussion instrument; I will be borrowing a little bit from the pianist Cecil Taylor to inform my guitar playing.”

A forthcoming record with solo guitar is a focal point for Bjorkenheim. The working title for the album was Impossible Guitar, which says a lot about the aspiration. There will be no overdubs and one of the ideas is to surprise live audiences by showing that it really can be done on stage.

Another idea for the album, which has the final title Cabin Fever, is to distribute the music to different types of venues. Instead of just playing at jazz festivals, a solo guitar programme should be interesting also for guitar festivals and even blues festivals. It might not be straight Robert Johnson, but slide playing will certainly be featured, promises Bjorkenheim, who has been spotted singing and playing Love In Vain solo on stage.

To each his own

Raoul Bjorkenheim could have walked a different path. The guitarist and composer almost started studying photography. He was the 13th of some 150 applicants for studies at the Taideteollinen korkeakoulu (currently Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture). Because only 11 were admitted, today he is a professional musician and an amateur photographer – not the other way around.

Photography can be one of the most concrete forms of art, but should music be made only for music’s sake or should it have some affinity with the world we live in? “Music has hugely more potential than to be simply entertainment, though that’s the main role assigned to it in our impatient, fast-food society. When listening to, say, the sound of Tibetan monks chanting, or field recordings of the Lakota tribe singing ritual songs, one senses dimensions that are totally lacking in the music pouring out of our media – echoes of a magical relationship to sound, pre- European and even pre-biblical.”

Bjorkenheim is however sure that many popular songs, which sound trite to his ears, may find emotional resonance in others, as appreciating art is – luckily – a subjective experience.

Could music have an effect on human health? Are there certain powers in music?

 “On a personal level, I’ve always found deep spiritual comfort in either playing or listening to music. In difficult times, when problems seem overbearing, I heal myself by sitting in the dark and playing for hours, leading me to have an emotional relationship to songs like Lush Life or the violin Partitas of Bach. Other examples of the healing qualities of music can be found in the writings of Oliver Sacks, who describes countless cases of people with severe disabilities that melt away under the influence of music, so I don’t think that there can be any doubt about the healing power of music.”

As to whether music should be made for its own sake, Raoul Bjorkenheim believes that as long as a musician feels that it has true personal value, then yes. According to the guitarist, the value may sound incomprehensible to others but, at the very least, must have relevance for its inventor.

 “Charles Ives was a composer who wound up writing a lot of ‘incomprehensible’ music for himself, but it soon was discovered to be beautiful by others as well. As to whether art has to be beautiful, I at least do my best to make mine sound so.”  

Photo: Jussi Puikkonen