Finnish guitar-wriggler Raoul Björkenheim is a man who likes to stay busy. Over the course of a career spanning two continents (he was born and raised in the U.S., decamped to Finland for thirty years, and moved to New York in 2001) and four decades, his restless imagination has led him in some very unexpected directions. As might be expected from his cross-Atlantic wanderings, he’s picked up Janus-faced influences that guide his own music: he’s firmly grounded in the European avant-garde that developed in the 1970s, but his work also displays liberal doses of American free jazz of the Ornette Coleman variety as well as slices of the Chicago style, and lately he’s formed kinship ties with the New York improvised music scene via an association with the likes of William Parker and Hamid Drake. Combine this with a love of fiery blues-tinged rock guitar and you’ve got a player whose catalogue reads like the work of a man who’s never quite satisfied.
The irritatingly stylized eCsTaSy is the name of both his latest quartet and their new album. (Buy it from Amazon.) After a number of years with the appropriately named Scorch Trio, which features some of Björkenheim’s most raucous and daring guitar work, he’s back on the Cuneiform label (where he last featured with Blixt, alongside bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Morgen Ågren), and this time he’s in the company of multifarious sax man Pauli Lyytinin and the rhythm section of bassist Jori Huhtala, a young player he met at the Sibelius Academy, and veteran drummer (and former sideman of Lee Konitz and Kenny Wheeler) Markku Ounaskari. All three are improv veterans at home and abroad, and seem well-equipped to keep up with an imagination as darting as that of their boss.
The album starts off with “Un Pueblo Unido,” a surprising number that finds Lyytinin creating a wall of unified sax sound behind which Björkenheim’s guitar peeks out at opportune moments to riff solidly along a spine of calculated feedback. Ounaskari and Huhtala (who sounds a bit muted at times before pushing to the fore about halfway through the song) provide a busy background, but the track manages, in its early and later passages, to sound like nothing so much as Frank Zappa in some of his jazzier moments from the early 1970s. While it’s less playful and more uplifting, particularly as it soars to a surprisingly emotional close, it still recalls Zappa’s affinity for straddling the edge of rock and jazz forms.
“SOS,” the next track, is considerably harder and stranger, and altogether the work of the Björkenheim heard with the Scorch Trio. The rhythm section tightens up considerably, providing rock-solid stabs and stomps as Lyytinin plays blasting stings and blistering jabs that could be the sounds of a fistfight in a particularly nasty and low-budget boxing movie. Björkenheim gives Lyytinin the spotlight here, contenting himself to shoot bracing waves of slightly off-kilter chords and matching the horn in the moments where they’ll do the most good. It’s a terrific track, reminiscent of some of his best material but entirely original and never less than compelling.
The appropriately titled “Deeper” starts out all eerie ambience, chilly snake-in-the-grass drum riffs and quirky distorted noise from the guitar and sax creating an almost minimalist drone. The most subdued and creeping track on the album, it insinuates and never explodes. “No Delay” follows, a return to Euro-style adventurousness with Björkenheim’s guitar cleanly skittering around Huhtala’s wandering bass and letting the sax wander off in its own directions before jumping to the front for a feverish workout. It’s the most explicitly free-sounding track on eCsTaSy, unrestrained but not quite over the edge.
“Through the Looking Glass” is the album’s weirdest joint, a goofily experimental bit of guitar/sax insanity that finds Björkenheim fiddling around with heavily treated guitar that sounds like it should be some galactic invader’s evil henchman. This segues quickly enough into the entirely different “As Luck Would Have It,” which begins as a showpiece for Huhtala’s acoustic bass skills and then develops into a hard-hitting and funky exercise that’s one of the album’s nastiest and most skillfully delivered compositions.
The least Latin thing imaginable, “Subterranean Samba’ features Ounaskari holding down a skiffling beat while Björkenheim’s guitar and Huhtala’s menacing bass get filtered through some monster effect that keeps the whole thing on edge while Lyytinin’s sax floats over the proceedings like a warning bird. “Threshold” brings everything back down to earth, with the disjointed guitar providing a dissonant background to Lyytinin in a downright smoky mood; it’s almost torchy to start, before the group inescapably leads it down an avant-garde path and then steers it right back to jazz at the last moment.
“The Sky is Ruby” closes out eCsTaSy, and it’s the longest track at around six and a half minutes. It’s no coincidence that its big sound and clever guitar-sax echoing draw the listener in early on, because the whole thing leads up to Björkenheim’s most ferocious soloing of the album. It’s a powerful closer to a set of songs that’s unpredictable at every turn.
Eclectic and rambling, but never quite to a fault, eCsTaSy likewise avoids the trap of overstaying its welcome; most of these tracks are under five minutes, and would likely lose their focus and intensity if allowed to blunder into suite-length pieces. Björkenheim shows admirable control, only letting loose when the occasion dictates, and a keen eye for properly utilizing the talent he’s assembled. There are only rare moments when Lyytinin, Huhtala or Ounaskari sound like they’re not being used to the fullest in the context of the song. Now in his 50s and facing down a past that had him fronting incendiary groups like Scorch Trio and Krakatau and re-interpreting Miles Davis’ electric period, Raoul Björkenheim seems just as energized as ever.
Stream “El Pueblo Unido”: