I first met Edward Vesala and Iro Haarla in 1983 at the Tuiskula summer band camp, where Vesala gave a solo performance on his huge set of drums that put us all in awe. A year later, Vesala asked me to add some guitar to a new production of his big band music that had been recorded by UMO. He did not have any separate guitar parts, instead giving me a handful of scores, with the instruction to figure it out for myself. I then spent a sweaty 12 hours at the Finnvox Studios doing my best to come up with what was expected of me, and the master did not let me off lightly! The soloists on that recording where Juhani Aaltonen and Tomasz Stanko, musicians of the absolutely highest caliber whom I had heard together with Vesala in the 1970s, so I was very proud indeed when the album Bad Luck, Good Luck was released on Vesala´s own Leo Records. It was the first time I was featured on a record!
Several years earlier, I had been commissioned to write a piece for UMO as part of their "Young Soloists" series. At the time, my favorite big band record was Anthony Braxton´s Creative Orchestra Music, and I especially loved Ellington´s Latin American Suite and the orchestral works of Stravinsky and Bartok. These influences found their way into my first three-part composition titled Other Places, and after that UMO commissioned me to write new material for the band on several occasions. The most ambitious was Primal Mind in 1991, a nine-part extravaganza featuring the raw lyrical guitar style I had been developing with Krakatau, my main band at the time. I also performed with UMO when they needed some "alternative" guitar playing, the most memorable time for me being a concert with Anthony Braxton.
So it seemed very natural to put this recording together, like coming around a full circle. In my earlier efforts, I tried to make the big band sound more like a chamber orchestra but this time I felt that the strength of the band was to allow it to sound just like it is - lots of saxophones, blaring brass, even walking bass lines. Unapologetically jazz!
In addition to the great soloists within UMO, we were joined by Juhani Aaltonen and Iro Haarla. Juhani is one of those rare musicians who has an inner fire urging him on in the continuous development of his art; whenever I hear him, I am knocked out by his intensity and tone. Iro´s playing is very familiar to me from the early days of Vesala´s Sound and Fury, when we performed many gigs together, later recording Lumi with that band for ECM (Pentti Lahti, Pepa Päivinen and Jari Hongisto featured on this recording were also in that band). A master of the understated ballad, her piano playing here swings and grooves, complementing her delicate harp playing on one track.
Mikko Hassinen put himself entirely into my music and did a great job conducting. Markku Veijonsuo, mainly known as an innovative improvising trombonist, brought his own dedication and extremely good microphones to the recording process, spending days and days improving small details of the mix to really make it sound like what it is: A BIG BAND!
New York City, January 8, 2007
All compositions included on this recording are by Raoul Björkenheim. This is how Björkenheim himself describes the music:
The Sky is Ruby features a melody that was inspired by John Coltrane´s playing on Interstellar Space (Impulse), one of my favorite records. It represents straight-ahead big band writing, with a quirky saxophone quintet accompaniment at the beginning of the piano solo.
Soloists: Iro Haarla, Juhani Aaltonen and Raoul Björkenheim
Questions was begun by orchestrating a series of 12-tone chords as "consonantly" as possible and then writing solo melodies for each member in the orchestra. I was thinking of Duke Ellington´s lush voicings, especially those on the Far East Suite -another favorite. This epic piece is mainly a vehicle for improvising inasmuch as the written portion ends after about 4 1/2 minutes. The conductor listens to how the group interacts and cues in the entrances of the ensemble, thus improvising within his given role.
Soloists: Juhani Aaltonen, Jari Hongisto, Pepa Päivinen and Mikko Pettinen, with improvised conducting by Mikko Hassinen
In the Green Light is dedicated to the esthetics of Thelonius Monk and Eddie Palmieri. This song rocks along like a train. I used only a few motives and let the players loose, as I often feel that big band writing is a bit too burdensome.
Soloists: Iro Haarla, Juhani Aaltonen, Pentti Lahti and Raoul Björkenheim
The Bloody Fields demonstrates my interest in the effect of overtones on the brightness of chords. Basically, I attempted to come up with sounds to blow down the walls of Jericho. This composition belongs to the series of antiwar pieces that I have written during the past years, such as New Day and Sarajevo. They reflect my despair over the violent and cruel actions of human beings, and my hope that sanity will eventually replace the barbarism running rampant at the present time.
Soloists: Juhani Aaltonen and Raoul Björkenheim
Lost Love begins with a harp intro that I discovered late one night as I was improvising onto my hard drive, and it generates the nostalgically introspective mood of the rest of the piece. Yes, I love Debussy´s music but there are also echoes of my years of apprenticeship with Edward Vesala. I have always loved the sound of Juhani´s flute and Iro´s harp, and here they get a chance to dance together.
Soloists: Juhani Aaltonen and Iro Haarla
Fiery Flight was largely created in the studio. When recording, I feel that one piece has to emerge out of the session itself, thus, retaining the full force of the new. I got to the studio, gave verbal instructions to the band, including exact pitches for the cues, and without further ado we just started recording. The band took off, with Juhani powerfully in the lead, and soon we were all airborne. Fiery Flight is based on an earlier composition for trio called Siipi (Wing in Finnish) in which the guitar melody acknowledges John Coltrane´s towering lyricism. The arrangement is inspired by a track called Aladar Horns from a compilation of Western African music, featuring dozens of "trombones" handmade of actual bison horns and wood that play an ecstatically free and intense texture that sounds like the merry destruction of all inhibitions.
Soloists: Juhani Aaltonen, Raoul Björkenheim and everybody else