Spotlight: Raoul Björkenheim

The first profile I ever did for Guitar Player magazine was about Raoul Björkenheim. I had discovered his band, Krakatau, on ECM and was stunned by his Hendrix meets late era Coltrane approach. I had to talk the editors into letting me do it, but to their credit they let me interview this unknown (in America, anyway) Finnish guitarist. Since then Björkenheim has appeared on dozens of recordings under his own name and with projects like Scorch Trio and Umo Jazz Orchestra. Like Bill Frisell, he has a distinctive, recognizable style that nevertheless fits in a variety of contexts. It is a sound synthesized from a wide range of influences that he describes in detail here. It is worth noting that though these sources of inspiration are common to hundreds of players, here they disappear into a singular voice that is pure Björkenheim.


What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I discovered the seven rotations of the major scale on my own, but was disappointed to find out they were already known as modes. The discovery nonetheless led to endless practicing, and by the time I got it all under some sort of control, I had been playing for five years. At that time I was in a band influenced by the music of the Who, Zappa, Yes, Jethro Tull etc.—we were way into progressive rock. Each original song had to consist of at least several sections, and though the solos were important, the band sound ruled. As jazz came more into the picture, the solos became more sophisticated and technically demanding— the Mahavishnu Orchestra blew the lid off of everything.

What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?

I don’t really consider my music to be “experimental,” though many of the processes I use while working on it are: alternative tunings for my 12-string, the violin bow, micro-interval tunings, combining effects pedals, nine note scales, etc. I feel I owe it to my audience to do most of my “experimenting” at home, and then bring only the most successful results to the concert stage or the recording studio. I’m always searching for sounds I haven’t heard yet, and consequently work on sounds I feel deserve to be [heard]. My music isn’t considered mainstream, but neither is it my goal to create an elitist music that no one can understand or enjoy, music is communication after all. Most mainstream music sounds too pre-chewed and pre-digested for my taste—too safe and boring. I can appreciate the fluency and harmonic inventiveness of, say, hard bop, but I prefer getting totally turned on by music with a more visceral and expressionistic approach, for example Coltrane’s “Interstellar Space.”  I listen to a truly eclectic brew of sounds (hardly any guitar) and my inner ear senses different things that could happen when combining them. A musician processes whatever he/she has been exposed to, and in the best cases comes up with sounds that are original, but are also a natural consequence of the past.

Whose music inspires you?

When I started to play guitar in 1968 I was mainly into the blues and had the fortune to hear B.B. King and Albert King play at the Fillmore East. Around that time I bought my first rock LP, Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up” and there was no going back. One major influence was seeing the film Woodstock, which I must have seen at least ten times in theaters with my friends. I was in awe of all that great music: Richie Havens’ manic trance-like “Freedom,” Alvin Lee’s rockabilly shredding on “I’m Going Home,” Santana’s incredible rhythmic energy on “Soul Sacrifice,” Joe Cocker’s gloriously crazy “I Get By with a Little Help From My Friends,” the Who, Sly and of course Hendrix’s revelatory set. In 1970 a schoolmate played me Band of Gypsies and that became my absolute bible, I still consider Jimi’s “Machine Gun” solo to be one of the best examples of free jazz ever recorded—talk about visceral!

Cream’s Wheels of Fire was a big influence on me. What I especially liked about it was Jack Bruce’s bass lines, which were a natural extension of his jazz contrabass playing. I read he liked Mingus, so I got my hands on a Red Norvo Trio album and heard both Charles’s incredible bass playing and Tal Farlow’s ultra bebop. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, so around 1974 I started taking guitar lessons from Mike Gari in NYC . My first question to him was, “How do I comp like Tal Farlow?” Mike set me on the road to musical knowledge, and from then on jazz came more into the picture.

My next big inspiration was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and McLaughlin became, along with Hendrix, one of my main influences. McLaughlin made a point of acknowledging Coltrane, leading me to “A Love Supreme,” which inspired me so much that I started collecting Coltrane albums. The one I’ve listened to most and have transcribed extensively was Interstellar Space, a duet with the drummer Rashied Ali. It causes an emotional catharsis in me, and is one of five albums I couldn’t imagine being without. That led to Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton one of my favorite sax players, Sam Rivers, and of course Wayne Shorter.

Browsing through records one day, the cover of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew looked so cool I had to buy it. I fell in love with it immediately, and it never fails to send chills up and down my spine. I have about twenty Miles  and they never sound dated to my ears, I listen to “Nefertiti” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” more than any other records.

In the 70s, records were so expensive we wound up listening to each other’s albums and avoided buying the same ones so we’d complete each other’s collections. My best friend Toppo’s older brother, Jukka, had great records; among them I discovered Frank Zappa, whose zany music I found hilariously inspiring. I learned the lyrics to a dozen of his albums by heart. Zappa mentioned the composer Edgar Varèse in an interview; I found a great Columbia compilation of his music, which urged my ears on to even stranger areas. Zappa had a piece called “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue.”  When I stumbled upon a record of Dolphy’s, I was so surprised to find that he really existed I bought it and have dug his music from then on. Jukka is also way knowledgeable about classical music; he’d often take us to hear symphony concerts, especially those of Stravinsky and Shostakovitch, telling us interesting anecdotes about the composers and the creation of their music. I had already listened a lot to classical music thanks to my mother, Taina Elg, who started out as a ballerina and went on to become an actress and a singer. We had music on all the time at home.

As my guitar playing got a bit more sophisticated, my taste in guitarists veered more towards the jazz side; I studiously listened to all the greats like Django, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Raney, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Barney Kessel. For a while, I avoided using any effects pedals and played with an archtop guitar. However, much of their swing era material didn’t satisfy my more psychedelic view, so when I heard Larry Coryell’s Spaces, John Abercrombie’s Gateway and Metheny’s Bright Size Life, I felt I had discovered the alternative to “jazz-jazz.” I wore out those albums transcribing tunes and ripping their best licks.  ECM records made a huge impact on me;  guitarists like Terje Rypdal sounded very original—more rock. That label brought players like Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek to my attention—their collaborative records blew my mind. I have also always loved Ralph Towner’s recordings.

I heard Shakti in 1975 at the Pori Jazz Festival, and though it didn’t have the visceral impact of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, their music was incredible, we all stood listening with our mouths open. I have heard them several times over the years, and have been amazed at their tight interplay and McLaughlin’s phenomenal playing—though at times it seemed there were just too many notes, too much technique. The short-term result of Shakti was that I seriously honed my picking technique and use of alternative pentatonic scales, the long term result was discovering the worlds of the northern and southern Indian music traditions, players like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Brij Narajan, Bhimsen Josh—amazing music, which brought into serious question the tunnel vision of my ultimately Eurocentric view.

After having studied for three years at Berklee, I moved to Helsinki , with the ambition of one day recording for ECM. I played in several great bands—at one point I played electric bass in Hasse Walli’s Afro-Line, with the Senegalese guitarist Badu n’Diaye—and became more and more aware of world music. Playing in that band was a real education, three one-hour sets every night. Another total education began in 1984, when I participated inFinnish free jazz drummer Edward Vesala’s workshop. His recordings and concerts had been very inspiring to me, especially his “Triptykon” on ECM, with Jan Garbarek and Arild Andersen. He made huge demands on the players in his band, and rehearsals would leave you totally drained after having played loud free jazz for hours on end. His workshop morphed into his band Sound & Fury, and in 1987 my dream of recording for ECM came true on Vesala’s “Lumi”. During that period I was exposed to a lot of improvised music. Vesala coerced me into abandoning my leanings towards trying to emulate Metheny and Scofield. He played me the record Best Laid Plans by David Torn, another artist on that label, which became a fave of mine. Later on Torn became a friend.

After leaving Vesala’s band, I formed Krakatau, a band that played what I liked to call “primitive jazz.” Our sources of inspiration were mainly from ethnic recordings of African, Balinese, Japanese and Korean music, which had much older histories than the 400 years of our western classical music. I started writing tunes more contrapuntal in nature, but without many key changes. A lot of it was sort of atonal/free-modal, and eventually improvising took over, a piece could be based on just a word, or a riff. Krakatau made two recordings for my own label (the first one, Ritual, was later rereleased on Cuneiform Records), thanks to which we got the chance to record two albums for ECM, another dream fulfilled. We later had a big “Krakatau and Senegalese Drums” ensemble, which was a real fusion of many inspirations, and played about a dozen gigs together.

After Krakatau broke up in 1999, I had the opportunity to write some orchestral pieces that were pperformed by several orchestras in Finland. I had to seriously slow everything down and study new ways of thinking about harmony, rhythm, and melody. I’ve always been hugely inspired by the music of Messiaen, especially his piano works, and also the piano sonatas of Charles Ives, not to mention Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Bartok’s String Quartets. I’ve always listened more to piano than to guitar, and am now working on a set of solo guitar pieces, which have been influenced by Cecil Taylor, in which the guitar is turned into a percussion instrument with mad two-handed tapping.

My neighbors must think that there are several people living in my apartment, as I might easily be listening to Beck’s Odelay, Ligeti’s piano etudes, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Meshuggah, The Art of Ensemble’s Nice Guys,  and end up listening to Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.  Honestly, the music that inspires me is so vast and the names I haven’t mentioned yet would fill the next twenty pages, but let’s move on!

How did you get better your current style?

I have my sights set on several quite different “styles,” and the only way to get them honed into shape is by working on them every day, which I’ve been doing for more than forty years. Luckily music is the thing I enjoy doing most of all, and I get very frustrated if I can’t spend at least a few hours at it every day. Mostly I practice at home using a really small amp, but the most useful practicing is done in the rehearsal room that I’ve had since 1987, where I can play as loud as I want any time of day.

The music of my new quartet, Ecstasy, puts new demands on me as an accompanist, including playing both rock-type rhythmic figures and riffs, and sensitively following Pauli Lyytinen’s sax or Jori Huhtala’s bass lines. Since we don’t use set forms as in most jazz, like where you know which chord to play on the fifth bar, I have to really listen closely so as not to destroy the harmonic implications of their solo lines. For this I have worked a lot on ear training, ever since 1978 actually, and have been teaching a course in atonal ear training at the Sibelius Academy for the past few years.

What are you trying convey with your music?

I’d argue that any so-called “original” music is really a filtering and reassembling of all the music a composer/improviser has heard during his/her life. It all affects what is conceptually possible to convey. Coltrane said some beautiful things about this, so without directly quoting him, I’d say my main mission in music is to elevate the spirit of the listener, to transport them to a brighter space. I want my audience to undergo a catharsis of sorts, to burn away its troubles for a brief instant and give a huge dose of positive energy. I want the person who has been to my concert or heard my recording to feel lighter and stronger. I’m aiming for an inner spiritual reaction to my music.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

The guitar I’ve used the most during the past few years has been a Parker Night Fly, by far the most adaptable instrument I’ve ever owned. Stainless steel frets that never wear out allow me to uninhibitedly tap, sometimes even with my slide. Its Piezo microphone also opens up many new vistas, one of my favorites being the drum sound, which happens when tapping the bridge. I also love my Stratocasters, both built by Finnish luthiers, one to the exact dimensions of my hands. Both of these guitars appear on eCsTaSy, but it’s mainly my Parker you’re hearing. I recently acquired a Gibson double-neck standard, which I used in the studio, but the pieces were left off the cd, though the guitar sounds great. I have also been playing my Gibson Les Paul, which is really great for single-note lines.

I have a nice collection of amps and cabinets, which I spend a lot of time combining and re-combining in many different ways. For the eCsTaSy album I used a blue Marshall 30th Anniversary Special Edition head running through a Marshall half cabinet containing two Celestion Sidewinder speakers. Its tube distortion is better than pedal distortion for what I do, more dynamic, and I’ve used a Seymour Duncan Convertible amp running through a full-sized Marshall cabinet ever since 1987, you can hear that on my Krakatau albums. At the moment, my main amp set-up is a Vox AC-30 running through a Marshall 4 x 10″ cabinet. For  distortion I use a Fulltone OCD, an old Tube Screamer, a Sovtek Electro Harmonix Big Muff, and a UFO distortion with Octavia effect. I used an Alesis Quadraverb rack unit for reverbs and delays for many years, but recently I’ve been using a TC Electronics stomp pedal for reverbs.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I prefer playing live, as an attentive audience will do wonders in bringing the music up to higher levels of inspiration. I have gotten better at playing in studios, but I’m one of those perfectionists who will insist on doing a thousand takes, only to realize that the first one was the best anyway, so studios tend to feel quite stressful at times. Of course it’s great to be able to tweak a song to make it as perfect as possible, as we did on the new eCsTaSy cd.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Playing, playing, playing. I’m of the generation that feels one has to first come up with great music and allow that to build up the audience, as opposed to nowadays with the social media making it possible to do it the other way around. I’m taking advantage on those possibilities too, but I don’t spend enough time on marketing myself to have really built up a huge audience. YouTube is my main tool, and by checking out the media page of my website, you can find a whole bunch of representative takes. At the moment, I have a manager, Annamaija Saarela, who is booking eCsTaSy and my power trio, Triad. Blixt. The trio with Bill Laswell and Morgan Ågren, is being booked by Dirk Feys with Tsahara Productions, based in Belgium.

 With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

The musicians I play with today are so inspiring and dynamic that I don’t have a longing for brief collaborative projects. I think the result of a band playing together a lot and actually spending days/weeks rehearsing is the best route for what I want to achieve. On the other hand, I recently played a festival gig in the awesome company of the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Morgan Ågren, which I’d love to record in a studio, so there we have one collaboration I look forward to continuing. The music we came up with brought a very heavy metal attitude to a free jazz sensibility, and given time to develop would allow us to really elevate audiences that have never even heard of jazz.


What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

My newest project is the Raoul Björkenheim Triad, with the drummer Ilmari Heikinheimo and the bassist Ville Rauhala, and there are already two very good clips from a recent gig on YouTube. We intend to record our first album in April.

My solo guitar album has been on the drawing board for years, but I’m fully determined to get that finished by this summer.

eCsTaSy is available on Amazon





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