Thursday, October 19, 2017

Raoul Björkenheim / eCsTaSy - Doors of Perception (CUNEIFORM RECORDS)

Nordic jazz explorers Raoul Björkenheim and eCsTaSy
open the Doors to New Sonic Vistas with
Doors of Perception,
kaleidoscopically inventive & perceptive improvisation 
that reveals the quartet at its hottest, 
unleashing “what Ecstasy sounds like”

In the mansion that is guitarist Raoul Björkenheim’s music there are many rooms, and the Finnish-American guitar explorer opens up a particularly vivid and volatile new portal with Doors of Perception, his third Cuneiform release with his quartet eCsTaSy. Slated for release on October 6, 2017, the album captures an extraordinary working ensemble stretching into transfixing new spaces, settings defined as much by texture, vibe and sinuous melodic lines as by rhythmic and harmonic structures.

Featuring the innovative drummer Markku Ounaskari, Björkenheim’s longtime partner in sonic exploration, the young and dauntingly prolific saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen and bassist Jori Huhtala, eCsTaSy continues to expand its sonic palette. Over the course of six years the musicians have forged a riveting communion. Capaciously inventive, rigorously gutsy and unapologetically Nordic, the music flows from the mystic Finnish landscape and the hothouse Helsinki music scene that gave birth to the band. 

“The band has really developed during the last few years, getting to a point that I had hoped we would reach,” Björkenheim says. “We went into the studio with some sketches, but most of the music was created spontaneously, and you get a sense of this ongoing conversation. We couldn’t have done this five years ago. We didn’t have this kind of trust yet.”

One sure sign of the quartet’s deep connection is the way they distill ideas. Sequenced as a stream of consciousness train of impressions, Doors of Perception features 10 tracks that all clock in under five minutes. Rather than exploring extended forms or expansive soundscapes, the music is instead marked by pithy statements and compressed drama. Which isn’t to say Doors of Perception lacks grandeur. The album opens with “Ides of March,” an ominous, portentously churning piece that breaks like a thunderstorm, only to clear with a thumping bass passage and a thick, ringing guitar chord. “Buzz,” the album’s briefest piece, is a jittery journey that seems to pass through a multitude of stations, driven by Ounaskari’s spidery cymbal work.

Maybe the group was heading to the beach, as the wary but persistently spacious “Surf Bird,” follows, featuring Lyytinen’s lilting East-meets-West wood flute. The album’s longest track, “Elemental” is also the most pleasingly consonant, a snaky sojourn that keys on Lyytinen’s keening soprano sax and Björkenheim’s meaty strumming. With its blustery bass sax and soaring guitar line, “Talkin’ to Me?” is appropriately pugnacious, while the title track proceeds like an invitation to an enigmatic subterranean realm. The album closes with “Ecstasy Dance,” a righteous blast of joy that whirls off to the horizon, suggesting yet another door well worth entering. 

While Björkenheim is no stranger to long musical structures, he was after a different kind of narrative arc on Doors of Perception. Much like each piece is a finely calibrated aural micro-cosmos, the album proceeds from track to track with its own internal logic. “In a way it is countercultural,” Björkenheim says. “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.”

With Doors of Perception, Björkenheim and eCsTaSy avoid predictable and boring routines to offer the listeners something all too rare in most jazz these days.  The Doors of Perception invites listeners to join eCsTaSy’s musical trip, a journey filled with excitement and joyous revelations that spark emotions and expand all ears.

Doors of Perception is the third release by Raoul Björkenheim’s Ecstasy, all of which were released by Cuneiform. The first album, the self-titled eCsTaSy, came out in 2014.  eCsTaSy’s second album, Out of the Blue, was released in 2015. Both previous eCsTaSy albums were nominated for the Emma Prize for Best Jazz Recording in Finland, which is the Finnish version of the Grammy.

As those who’ve seen him in his many ensembles can testify, guitarist Björkenheim is an astounding live performer, and his band  eCsTaSy is positively electrifying live. Active on the international jazz festival circuit, Ecstasy recently played at Jazzahead in Bremen in April 2017. In support of the release of Doors of Perception, Ecstasy will perform several concerts in Finland in 2017.  Björkenheim plans to tour Ecstasy internationally in 2018, as well as to do several festival performances.


Raoul Björkenheim
Born in Los Angeles in 1956 to Finnish parents, Björkenheim spent the first 15 years of his life in California and New York surrounded by artists (his mother is Finnish actress and singer Taina Elg). In the early 1970s, he moved to Finland, where he came into the orbit of the great Finnish jazz drummer Edward Vesala, who introduced him to his rigorous improvisational ethic. By the early 1980s, Björkenheim became a key member of Vesala’s pool of players, performing on three of the drummer’s albums including the classic 1987 ECM session Lumi by the sprawling ensemble Sound And Fury.

“Vesala was a strong influence when I was starting out as a jazz musician in the 80s,” Björkenheim says. “His recording Tryptikon for ECM with Jan Garbarek and Arild Andersen is one of my talismans to this day. That record proposes a music influenced by the free jazz of Ornette and Ayler, but tempered by a gorgeous Nordic sensibility and an ear for free tonality, combined with an extended use of dynamics.”

By the end of the 1980s, Björkenheim was ready to strike out on his own, and he made his first major contribution as a bandleader with Krakatau. The group released two recordings in Finland; in 1996, Cuneiform reissued one of them, 1988’s Ritual, thus beginning its longstanding collaboration with the guitarist. After Björkenheim reformed Krakatau with all new personnel, the group gained international acclaim in the early 1990s with two albums on ECM. Krakatau continues to make music, often joining forces with four-piece West African percussion ensemble Senegal Drums as the 8-piece Krakatau & Senegal Drums, whose most recent festival gig “had people dancing in the aisles, it's very joyous music,” recalls Björkenheim.

In 2001, Björkenheim moved to New York City. On September 18 - exactly a week after 9/11 - he released an astounding and ambitious album called Apocalypso on Cuneiform. A solo studio album, Apocalypso featured Björkenheim playing all of the 42 parts he originally composed for 42 guitarists at the 1994 Helsinki Juhlaviikot Festival. All About Jazz noted that “Apocalypso manages to be both brilliant and apocalyptic at the same time. It stands among Björkenheim's best work… pure, undiluted Björkenheim…truly glorious in its relentless blackness.”

Björkenheim returned to Finland in 2008, where he resides today. He continues working with like-minded visionary musicians on both continents, collaborating with Finnish musicians (UMO Orchestra, Kalle Kalima and Markus Holkko) while also maintaining productive contacts with New York free jazz stalwarts William Parker and Hamid Drake, Kalabalik with Gerald Cleaver and Anders Nilsson, and genre-smashing Bill Laswell.  In 2011, Cuneiform released the debut self-titled album by Blixt, featuring the jaw-dropping trans-continental power trio of Björkenheim, bassist Laswell and Swedish drummer Morgan Ågren. 

In Finland, Björkenheim has forged a creatively rewarding relationship with the noted Finnish director Taru Mäkelä, writing scores for a series of her films, including the 2011 hit Varasto (Warehouse) and a sequel to the dark, workplace comedy Varasto 2 (Warehouse 2), to be released in 2018. In addition, Björkenheim is currently writing a book on guitar improvisation. “The book,” says Björkenheim, “will be purposefully aimed at ALL guitarists who want to learn their way around their instruments through improvising, so jazz, classical, folk and rock guitarists will find a wealth of ideas to work on.”

Regarding his recording and performing ensembles, Björkenheim says “I’m mainly focused on eCsTaSy and Triad. Instead of putting out 10 records a year, these days I prefer something that’s more focused and complete.” Triad, Björkenheim’s power trio with double bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Ilmari Heikinheimo, released its critically hailed debut album Beyond (Wayside) in 2017. But his primary creative outlet for the past six years has been eCsTaSy, an astounding, empathetic quartet whose first two recordings on Cuneiform (2014’s Ecstasy and 2015’s Out of the Blue) were nominated for an Emma, the Finnish equivalent of the Grammy. 

Founded by Björkenheim in 2001, Ecstasy includes drummer and long-time Björkenheim collaborator Markku Ounaskari, and saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen and bassist Jori Huhtala, whom Björkenheim met during his teaching duties at the Sibelius Academy.

Markku Ounaskari
A veteran of some of the most memorable Finnish groups of the past two decades, Markku Ounaskari gained new visibility recording for ECM, including his first solo album, 2010’s Kuára. A confederate of international jazz stars like Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, French guitarist Marc Ducret, alto sax legend Lee Konitz, and the late great Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, Ounaskari has played with all virtually almost all the major Finnish jazz figures. In 2014 he was given the Yrjö prize, the most prestigious jazz award and the biggest acknowledgement that a jazz musician can receive for his or her work in Finland. “Markku is a lyrical player who has the capacity for high-energy explosions as well,” Björkenheim says, “so with him in the crew we're aiming for that wide dynamic/emotional range.”

Pauli Lyytinen
Saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, 34, is part of the band’s youth wave, a prolific recording artist who leads or co-leads a diverse array of ensembles, including Elifantree, Magnetia Orkesteri, Equally Stupid, Pauli Lyytinen Machinery, Kauhukakara, Laponia Improvisations Experiment, and Skalle & Sharon. “He’s a musician and composer with an obsession for tone color and experimental techniques, creating a sensation with his fluency on the Bb family of saxophones, from bass to soprano,” Björkenheim says. “In music ranging from hardcore free to experimental pop, Lyytinen has been inventing new roles for his instrument, often limiting himself to the role of accompanist. In this quartet, he gets a chance to spread his improvisatory wings.”

Jori Huhtala
At 33, bassist Jori Huhtala is the youngest member of the band, though he’s already firmly established on the international scene through his work with heavyweights like David Liebman, Tim Hagans, Jukkis Uotila and Tim Ries. At home he’s in constant demand as a sideman with top Finnish improvisers such as Verneri Pohjola, Eero Koivistoinen, Kari Ikonen, and Jari Perkiömäki, and in the ensembles Big Blue, Kvalda, and Jussi Fredriksson Jazz Wars. For Björkenheim, his powerful bandstand presence “echoes of Miroslav Vitous and other past masters.” 

Cuneiform asked Raoul Björkenheim to talk about Doors of Perception. Here’s what he said:

The name of our album is "Doors of Perception", readily bringing to mind the book by Aldous Huxley describing his ecstatic experiences with mescaline, and also part of a poem called "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" by William Blake. I named it that because of the cover photograph, which I took while walking in Soho NYC last June. It seemed to me to evoke the psychedelic spirit of our album, in which the listener really has to let go and just dive in! 

But the cover also has a subtle political message. The USA’s political climate is hitting unprecedented lows, and unbelievably 40% of the population still think that Trump is doing a good job (WTF??), so everything feels very absurd, like there's little hope in sight. When I saw this doorway in Soho, I couldn't resist the image, which seemed to me to be as fragmented as society is now, and of course the dig at Trump was waaay too polite, but it felt very appropriate, especially as the poster is in Spanish.

When we were planning this album, I had the ambition to write tight charts. But my experience led me to decide that the free quality I'm looking for thrives better in an improvised setting, so I abandoned the chart idea and instead trusted the band to listen and improvise, based on several ideas for each piece. 

Compared to Ecstasy’s previous album, Doors of Perception is a freer, rawer proposal with less predetermined forms, so the band has a chance to demonstrate trust in ourselves and in each other. After six years of working together, I feel that this album sounds more mature and together, though the hallmarks of our playing will surely be recognizable.

The listener might initially become disoriented by the raw sound we deliver here, but given that "jazz" records have often become so predictable, I hope that this music will feel fresh and daring once the musical environment becomes more familiar. We take quite a lot of risks that most jazz musicians would leave alone, allowing ourselves to ride the waves as they come, but I myself have great respect for musicians that do take those risks.

I think that Doors of Perception reveals the band at it's hottest, almost like a live recording, and therefore it gives a true picture of what Ecstasy sounds like.  - Raoul Björkenheim

1. Ides of March (3:16)
2. Answer It! (5:13)
3. Buzz (3:01)
4. Surf Bird (4:27)
5. Elemental (5:44)
6. Talkin’ to Me? (4:18)
7. Doors of Perception (5:30)
8. Jitterfug (3:25)
9. Sunflower (3:21)
10. Ecstasy Dance (4:50)

Raoul Björkenheim: electric 6 string and 12 string guitars
Pauli Lyytinen: bass, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, wood flute
Jori Huhtala: doublebass
Markku Ounaskari: drums and percussion

Produced by Raoul Björkenheim.

All music by eCsTaSy except tracks 7, 8 & 10 by Raoul Björkenheim.

Recorded and mixed by Markus Kärki.

Mastered by Pauli Saastamoinen @ Finnvox Studios 2017.

Cover photo by Raoul Björkenheim.

Cover design by Bill Ellsworth.

This recording was made possible by a grant from The Arts Promotion Centre Finland.

BRZZVLL - Waiho (SDBAN RECORDS October 2017)

Belgian fusion band BRZZVLL (pronounced Brazzaville) are set to release their seventh studio album this autumn, entitled ‘Waiho’, released 6th October via Sdban Ultra

Founded by Vincent Brijs in Antwerp in 2006, the seven piece interfuse improvised dance music with jazz-fusion, afro funk and rare groove. It is freaky, it is trippy and it follows no rules. Belgium has quite a tradition for jazz and funk infused leftfield grooves from Marc Moulin’s ingenious Placebo to library funksters Les Chakakas / El Chicles to the much sampled JJ Band and BRZZVLL follow in a similar tradition.

Initially re-working arrangements from jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Eddie Harris, Freddie Hubbard and Archie Shepp, BRZZVLL eventually began to construct their own forms of free jazz in an attempt to return jazz to its primitive roots based around collective improvisation.

New album ‘Waiho’ is BRZZVLL at its best: excellent psychedelic jazz-funk in which the band’s solid, characteristic sound comes forward. After two inspirational collaborations with poets and ‘Nuff Said brothers Anthony Joseph (‘Engines’) and Amir Sulaiman (‘First Let’s Dance’), BRZZVLL play the instrumental card.

With ‘Waiho’, the band express their current cry for solidarity within music as well as their daily lives. Nowadays, music is too often used as an individual consumption product. The band centralise the group experience, both in the creation process and in the interaction with the audience when performing live, by being “in the moment” and lifting the music to a higher level, as one. This way, BRZZVLL go back to the roots of jazz and funk.

Leftfield psychedelic jazzers BRZZVLL share warped video to 'Mantra' taken from new critically acclaimed album 'Waiho'