My first encounter with the dazzling whack jazz guitar wizardry of Raoul Björkenheim came via one of his many projects, the Norwegian-Finnish alliance power combo Scorch Trio (Luggumt, 2004). Another time came in 2011 when he got together with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Morgan Agren (Blixt). It seems that every time I come across this cat, I’m listening to some of the most exciting, edgy and intelligent music experimental jazz has to offer.
He’s done much more than these things, such as leading the furious and fearsome group Krakatau and his own albums for the ECM label during the 90s. Now he’s comes back into awareness with the first release by his latest project, eCsTaSy.
eCsTaSy is a band Björkenheim formed in 2010, stocked with players from the L.A.-born guitarist’s ancestral country of Finland. Saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, bassist Jori Huhtala and drummer Markku Ounaskari complete this potent quartet. What’s more, their first and self-titled album convinces that Björkenheim didn’t pick these guys because they’re Finnish, he chose them because they are incredible intuitive and selfless virtuosos who happen to be from Finland. Consistent with Björkenheim’s own musical personality, eCsTaSy roams just inside and outside the perimeter of jazz, and the players subscribe to the gospel of impulse as much as they adhere to even the outer regions of jazz.
“El Pueblo Unido” packs the sonic sax/guitar spiritual wallop of Sonny Sharrock’s masterpiece Ask The Ages but instead of a Coltranian pattern, it channels Ornette Coleman through a Nordic folk strainer, creating a strange serenity coexisting with restlessness. Björkenheim, like the 1970’s version of Terje Rypdal, adeptly portrays the conflicting moods through the language of a rock guitar.
“Sos” plays mind games with the listener, stopping and restarting stutter-style and the tuba sound you hear is actually Björkenheim’s guitar. When the band finally takes the song off the ground and moves into swing, Lyytinen’s soprano sax maintains the song’s slightly jittery edge. Rhythm takes a break on “Deeper,” which is centered on the torturous bowed bass of Huhtala. “No Delay” is amoeba bop, where Huhtala’s staggered bass strolling along with Ounaskari’s rambling drums holds the mass of abstraction together while Lyytinen and Björkenheim articulate on the loose theme.
Björkenheim’s sets free a barrage of odd plucks and electro sound effects during the completely abstract “Through the Looking Glass,” and “As Luck Would Have It” has a modest start that builds up into a mighty funky head of steam with Björkenheim breaking out a little unhinged blues-rock slide. “Subterranean Samba” really is a samba in a mutated form and it really is subterranean: Björkenheim makes his axe sound like the striking of low, loose raspy strings. Combined with the rhythm section, it’s an oddly attractive groove which Lyytinen mounts and rides for all its worth.
“Threshold” is a pensive occasion for Lyytinen to apply a soul-immersed tenor to the rolling rhythms of Huhtala and Ounaskari. Lyytinen uses the same horn for a display of his fluent inside/outside technique during “The Sky Is Ruby” before handing it off to Björkenheim and his advanced jazz sensibilities. It’s still hard not to appreciate what that loose, rowdy and so spot on rhythm section is doing in the meantime, though.
I’ll be damned if Raoul Björkenheim didn’t start another project that turned to gold. eCsTaSy may have its capitalization in the wrong places but it hits all the right notes.
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eCsTaSy goes on sale January 21, by Cuneiform Records.