Raoul Björkenheim (b. 1956) was born in Los Angeles and lived in the United States until the age of 15. After finishing school in Helsinki, Finland, Björkenheim studied classical guitar at the Helsinki Conservatory in 1977 and 1978 and then studied at the Berklee College of Music from 1978 until 1981 returning to Finland after graduation. In 2001, Björkenheim moved to New York, which has been his home ever since. Björkenheim has produced a broad body of works ranging from solo guitar pieces to a concerto for electric guitar, violin and symphony orchestra. In recognition of his work, Björkenheim has received a number of awards, including the Young Finland Prize in 1996, the Emma Award for the best Finnish jazz recording in 1992, and the Yrjö Award of the Finnish Jazz Federation as the jazz musician of the year in 1984.
Björkenheim´s early influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King to Frank Zappa but gradually he broadened the scope of his interests to include John McLaughlin and John Coltrane on the way to developing his own, highly personal style. Björkenheim´s guitar playing has often been described as a force of nature, the conventional traits usually associated with jazz or rock having melded into a more visceral, expressionistic approach to creating timbre and velocities. Experimenting with various tunings on 6- and 12-string guitars, Björkenheim makes full use of the subtleties offered by electronics, often creating startling textures.
Björkenheim´s early musical associations included Arbuusi, a trio also featuring bassist Toppo Isopuro and drummer Tom Nekljudow, which was active from 1976 until the 1980s, as well as Roommushklahn with saxophonist Jone Takamäki, pianist Jarmo Savolainen, bassist Antti Hytti and Nekljudow.
Although Roommushklahn was only active for a relatively brief period in the early 1980s, Björkenheim has continued his cooperation with all of its other members over the years, including in his own groups and, for example, Suhkan Uhka, the 12-member ensemble that released its first recording on TUM Records in 2003 (Suhka, TUM CD 001), although Björkenheim had already moved back to New York by the time of this recording.
Björkenheim´s breakthrough into international consciousness came through his membership in Edward Vesala´s Sound and Fury ensemble, which lasted for much of the 1980s and resulted in classic recordings for Vesala´s own Leo Records (Bad Luck, Good Luck and Kullervo) as well as ECM Records (Lumi). Björkenheim also participated in various spin-off projects arising from Sound and Fury, including RinneRadio, led by saxophonist Tapani Rinne, as well as Krakatau, an experimental trio initially established with trombonist Jari Hongisto and Vesala, which gradually developed into a group lead by Björkenheim.
From 1986 through 1996, Krakatau went through different incarnations that each added to Björkenheim´s reputation as one of Europe´s leading guitarists focusing on experimental improvisation. After two albums produced for the Hieronymus label in Finland (Ritual and Alive), Krakatau made two well-received recordings for ECM Records (Volition and Matinale). These featured the internationally best known version of the group, including saxophonist Jone Takamäki, bassist Ulf Krokfors and either Alf Forsman or Ippe Kätkä on drums.
After Krakatau disbanded, Björkenheim has increasingly focused on composing and has been featured as a soloist both in his works for the UMO Jazz Orchestra and in other works composed either for a symphony orchestra or for smaller chamber ensembles. Björkenheim has also collaborated extensively with other experimental musicians including guitarists Nicky Skopelitis and Henry Kaiser, trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, keyboardist Paul Schütze, bassists Bill Laswell and William Parker, drummers Ronald Shannon Jackson and Hamid Drake and many others. After moving to New York in 2001, Björkenheim worked for nearly a year with the Ethiopian singer Gigi. Currently, Björkenheim co-leads the Scorch Trio with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (Scorch Trio and Luggumt, Rune Grammofon). He also frequently performs with composer and drummer Lukas Ligeti in a duo that released its first recording Shadowglow in 2003 (TUM CD 006).
Juhani Aaltonen (b. 1935) began his professional career as a free-lance musician in 1961 and, at the same time, also began his studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. After one year, Aaltonen dropped out of school and became a full-time musician. During the 1960s, he performed extensively with trumpeter Henrik Otto Donner, saxophonist Esa Pethman, pianist Heikki Sarmanto, Edward Vesala and many others. In addition, Aaltonen was one of the founding members of the progressive rock group Tasavallan Presidentti. However, free improvisation has always been the preferred area of music for Juhani Aaltonen, his "mother tongue."
In the early 1970s, Aaltonen studied briefly at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and continued to collaborate with Heikki Sarmanto, Edward Vesala and others in Finland. During a three-year period towards the end of the decade, Aaltonen also performed and recorded for ECM Records as a member of the Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen´s quartet. Aaltonen was one of the founding members of UMO in 1975 and continued with the orchestra until 1986. Aaltonen left UMO after receiving a 15-year artist´s grant from the Finnish State.
During the 1980s, Aaltonen continued to cooperate with, among others, Henrik Otto Donner, pianist Jukka Linkola, Heikki Sarmanto, Edward Vesala and vocalist Maija Hapuoja. As part of this cooperation, Aaltonen performed as a soloist in a number of larger orchestral works, including Henrik Otto Donner´s orchestral suite The Spirit of the Valley, Jukka Linkola´s Crossings and Heikki Sarmanto´s Suomi Symphony.
During the 1990s, Aaltonen enjoyed a particularly close cooperation with Heikki Sarmanto, comprising a number of concert tours and recordings, including an eight-part suite for flute called Pan Fantasy and a composition for flute and piano called Silver Spell. Since the late 1980s, Aaltonen has also performed and recorded religious music.
Currently, Aaltonen leads his own trio with bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Tom Nekljudow. The trio released its first recording (Mother Tongue, TUM CD 002), which received the Emma Award for the best Finnish jazz recording of the year, in May 2003 and a collection of its interpretations of classic ballads (Illusion of a Ballad, TUM CD 013) in 2006 and has appeared at numerous European jazz festivals in recent years. Aaltonen has also been featured with The Avanti! Chamber Orchestra on a recording of Henrik Otto Donner´s compositions for tenor saxophone and a chamber orchestra (Strings Revisited, TUM CD 003) and with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille on a trio recording including each participant´s compositions and collective improvisation (Reflections, TUM CD 007). More about Juhani Aaltonen
Iro Haarla (b. 1956) studied piano at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with Izumi Tateno and also studied piano and improvisation with Heikki Sarmanto and composition and arrangement with Einar Englund. In the late 1970s, Haarla began her collaboration with Edward Vesala that continued until his death in 1999. In addition to being Haarla´s musical partner, Vesala was also her husband and the father of her two daughters. Her musical collaboration with Vesala included a membership in Vesala´s Sound and Fury ensemble and working on various other projects with Vesala, including music for several plays and movies. With Vesala, Haarla recorded several albums for ECM Records as well as Vesala´s own Leo Records playing piano, keyboards and harp.
In addition to working with Vesala, Haarla has, at various times, been a member of saxophonist Tapio Rinne´s RinneRadio, saxophonist Jorma Tapio´s Rolling Thunder, bassist Antti Hytti´s and saxophonist Jone Takamäki´s Otná Eahket quartet and various other groups. She has also performed with saxophonists Juhani Aaltonen, Trygve Seim and Tomasz Szukalski, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and many other leading European jazz musicians.
In the last few years, Haarla has increasingly performed her own compositions both as a solo pianist, with solo concerts in Japan and the Czech Republic in addition to Finland, and in smaller ensembles such as her duo with saxophonist Pepa Päivinen, which published the much-lauded album Yarra Yarra (November Music) in 2001. One of her compositions was also performed by UMO with Tomasz Stanko as the featured soloist in a concert broadcasted by EBU in 2002 and, at the Tampere Jazz Happening in 2006, UMO dedicated an entire concert to her compositions. Currently, Haarla leads a quintet with Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick, Ulf Krokfors and drummer Jon Christensen that released an album (Northbound) on ECM Records in 2006. She also co-leads with Ulf Krokfors a larger ensemble Loco Motife, which received the Emma Award for the best Finnish jazz recording of the year 2005 for its debut album (Penguin Beguine, TUM CD 011). Haarla and Krokfors have also released a duo recording (Heart of a Bird, TUM CD 004). In 2006, Haarla received the Yrjö Award of the Finnish Jazz Federation as the jazz musician of the year.
Mikko Hassinen (b. 1971) is one of the most in-demand drummers on the Finnish jazz scene. He has frequently performed with UMO but is also known for his work with smaller groups including those of saxophonists Eero Koivistoinen, Seppo Paakkunainen and Pepa Päivinen, vibraphonist Severi Pyysalo and pianists Seppo Kantonen and Riitta Paakki. Hassinen has often collaborated with Björkenheim, including in a duo with him and as a member of his Triad trio, which also included bassist Hannu Rantanen, in 2000 and 2001. Also, Björkenheim is featured on one of the recordings of Hassinen´s electronic music project (Damodara 3). In recent years, Hassinen has increasingly focused on composition and conducting. A number of his works have been performed by UMO and he has also often conducted UMO and other ensembles.
UMO Jazz Orchestra
In the mid-1970s, a number of prominent Finnish jazz musicians established the Finnish Jazz Music Workshop in order to have an opportunity to compose for, and play together in, a large ensemble. Leading figures in the Finnish Jazz Music Workshop included Heikki Sarmanto and Esko Linnavalli. In 1975, the Finnish Jazz Music Workshop became Uuden Musiikin Orkesteri, or the New Music Orchestra. However, to the audience and musicians alike, the orchestra was known as UMO and, some 12 years later, it adopted the name UMO Jazz Orchestra.
UMO´s key members in the early years included saxophonists Juhani Aaltonen, Unto Haapa-aho, Eero Koivistoinen, Pentti Lahti, Pertti Päivinen, Pekka Pöyry and Teemu Salminen, trumpeters Kaj Backlund, Esko Heikkinen, Markku Johansson, Simo Salminen and Jörgen Petersen, trombonists Tom Bildo, Petri Juutilainen, Mikael Långbacka, Mircea Stan and Markku Veijonsuo, guitarist Otto Berger, pianists Olli Ahvenlahti and Esko Linnavalli, bassist Pekka Sarmanto and drummer Esko Rosnell, five of whom are featured as musicians and one as the recording engineer on this recording. From the outset, UMO´s artistic level was rated highly, and it regularly invited international guest soloists to perform with the band. In 1984, UMO became a full-time professional orchestra.
Today, UMO is rated as one of the world´s top big bands. It especially promotes Finnish music both at home and abroad. By commissioning and performing as much new material as possible, it both stimulates and supports Finnish jazz production - something for which the band is renowned worldwide. UMO has so far released more than 20 recordings of its own and has appeared on numerous other recordings. Its radio concert broadcasts are an important part of Finnish jazz culture.
UMO´s repertoire comprises some 1,200 compositions. This unique collection is systematically added to each year through new commissions and visits by conductors and soloists from abroad. More than 100 top names in jazz, such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Ray Anderson, Bob Belden, Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Michael Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, Larry Coryell, Gil Evans, Mike Gibbs, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Tim Hagans, Tom Harrell, Joe Henderson, Thad Jones, Oliver Lake, Joe Lovano, Albert Mangelsdorff, Sam Rivers, George Russell, Maria Schneider, John Scofield, Tomasz Stanko, Keith Tippett, McCoy Tyner, Cuong Vu, Bennie Wallace, Mike Westbrook, Randy Weston and Kenny Wheeler, in addition to virtually all of today´s Finnish jazz musicians of note, have performed with UMO over the years, and its international collaborations have been crucial both for the development of the orchestra and its members and for the Finnish jazz scene more broadly.
Jan Kohlin trumpet
Timo Paasonen trumpet
Mikko Pettinen trumpet
Tero Saarti trumpet
Juhani Aaltonen tenor saxophone and alto flute
Pentti Lahti alto, soprano and sopranino saxophone, flute, bass flute, piccolo flute
Mikko Mäkinen alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Teemu Salminen tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
Olli Ojajärvi tenor saxophone, flute
Pertti Päivinen soprano, baritone and bass saxophone, bass clarinet
Pekka Laukkanen trombone
Mikko Mustonen trombone
Jari Hongisto trombone
Mikael Långbacka bass trombone
Iro Haarla piano and harp
Raoul Björkenheim electric guitar, gongs and bass drums
Ville Huolman bass
Markus Ketola drums
Mikko Hassinen conductor