Finnish-American guitarist Raoul Björkenheim is more or less the definition of iconoclast, which is especially notable given the fact that he attended one of the biggest jazz factories in the United States, Boston's Berklee School of Music. Berklee has employed and produced its share of guitarists (including most prominently alumnus John Scofield and professor Pat Metheny), but none sound even remotely like Björkenheim. He's uniquely noisy, focused, and open to lessons from genres as disparate as death metal and free jazz.
The group known as Krakatau was founded in 1985 in the wake of Finnish drummer/composer/bandleader Edward Vesala's Sound & Fury, which Björkenheim joined for three records and three years of live performance. Reedists Jorma Tapio and Tapani Rinne share the same pedigree. Krakatau recorded Ritual in 1988, to be followed by three more records with varying lineups. Björkenheim also made waves (and met new ears) with 2002's Scorch Trio alongside bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.
Ritual originally came out in 1988 on Hieronymus, was subsequently reissed by Cuneiform on CD in 1996 with two extra tracks, and has just recently been placed back in print. It's not an easy record by any stretch, though listenability is not anyone's priority here. Björkenheim plays his axe with a dirty tone and little regard for jazz convention; the rhythms more often fall into deep, ritualistic trance music or open space than any obvious swing or groove. The lead instruments (mostly Björkenheim's guitar plus Tapio and Rinne's reeds) tend to swirl together in loose groupings when it's time to stretch out, or center obliquely around melodies when it's time to come together.
The freedom of speech, built upon square beats, recalls Ornette Coleman's early work with Blood Ulmer, plus Prime Time and Shannon Jackson's own ritualistic hub. (Listen especially to the controlled freedom of "La Lluana," for example.) But Björkenheim is no Blood Ulmer. He flies off into unstructured feedback ("New Day"), riffs deep in the bass ("Foot Talk"), screams for attention ("Matinaal"), and converses noisily with horns ("Ritual"). He even goes acoustic on "Epilog." The two things that make this music work are its unrelenting, forward marching pulse and the way the lead instruments come together in odd and unpredictable ways.
Björkenheim also does well with composition: "Foot Talk" starts with Ayler-esque screams around a gospelly theme, tense as hell, before submitting to more lyrical playing atop head-banging rhythms. It's an odd combination, and it works.
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