Raoul Bjorkenheim/eCsTaSy – Out of the Blue – Cuneiform

Finnish jazz and improvisation which is unpredictable and eclectic.

Raoul Bjorkenheim/eCsTaSy – Out of the Blue [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 413, 41:23 [10/16/15] ****:

(Raoul Bjorkenheim – electric guitar, producer; Pauli Lyytinen – tenor, bass and soprano saxophones, mey; Jori Huhtala – doublebass; Marrku Ounaskari – drums)

There is a side to modern jazz where allogamy, or cross-fertilization, is the norm rather than the opposite. It’s where lines get blurred: jazz fusion, prog rock, postmodern material, raucous noise, and more commingle. Guitarists such as Nels Cline, Bill Frisell and Sonny Sharrock have fused those lines. Finland’s Raoul Bjorkenheim is another guitarist who tackles disparate, but somehow connected, improvisational ground. His quartet, eCsTaSy, put out a debut in 2014. In late 2015 Raoul Bjorkenheim/eCsTaSy issued a sophomore release, the eight-track, 40-minute outing, Out of the Blue. Like its predecessor, Out of the Blue is a mix of harder-edged tunes and longer pieces which have elliptical shapes. Moods can suddenly shift, textures can be intimate one moment and strident the next. The overriding process is music which is very aware of its own individuality.

Several tracks showcase Bjorkenheim’s electric guitar, and are paced with tinges of rock and toughened jazz. Opener “Heads & Tales” has elongated harmonics and a measured melodic methodology. Bjorkenheim’s amplified tone has more in common with Jeff Beck than, say, Wes Montgomery, while the rhythm section (Jori Huhtala on double bass and Marrku Ounaskari on drums) keeps a contrasting foundation which is slippery, untethered and flexible. When multi-saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen steps into the spotlight, the tune carries a Ken Vandermark-esque sharpness. The stimulating, up-tempo “Uptown” also rocks, but in a different vein, more swinging and straightforward. On “Uptown” Bjorkenheim solos first, and then as the track ramps up in intensity, Lyytinen takes command, and then both sax and guitar start dueling. A party vibe permeates the rollicking, vigorously-swinging “Quintrille,” which is laced with Bjorkenheim’s guitar sparks, and the group’s brawny bass/drums beat. Mainstream and unconventional jazz meet headlong on the aptly-named “Roller Coaster,” where soprano sax, prepared guitar, zigzagging drums, and quick-fingered bass craft a boisterous, somewhat demented clatter, like a 21st-century twist on Carl Stalling’s cartoon music.

A Nordic sensibility is silhouetted during “A Fly in the House of Love,” which has a meditative soundscape. Lyytinen generates a Jan Garbarek feeling on the oboe-like zurna (a wind instrument, played in central Eurasia, which has a piercing tonality), while Huhtala switches to arco bass (which adds another layer to the tune’s mysterious quality), and Bjorkenheim and Ounaskari create a gamelan-like garnishing: Bjorkenheim does so via prepared guitar with alligator clips, while Ounaskari utilizes percussion in a similar, Asian structure. There is another awareness of an unfamiliar landscape during the lengthy closer, “Zebra Dreams,” which has an African undercoating. A bit of southern African resonance can be heard, as Bjorkenheim manages to make his guitar sound like an mbira or thumb piano; Ounaskari’s accented percussion elements also supplement the African influence. The ten-minute number has a cyclical nature, which augments the Zimbabwean undercurrent. Some listeners might think “Zebra Dreams” is too repetitive, but those who can see the links between jazz improvisation and Steve Reich’s compositions will appreciate this. Out of the Blue is unambiguously a Cuneiform Records album. Fans of the label will have an idea of the eclecticism and adventurism which saturates Out of the Blue. This is material which is engaging, bristly, combines old and new, and is unpredictable.

TrackList: Heads & Tales; Quintrille; A Fly in the House of Love; Uptown; You Never Know; OLJ; Roller Coaster; Zebra Dreams.

—Doug Simpson

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