Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Björkenheim has spent much of his life shuttling between New York and Helsinki. Descended from a family of musicians, Raoul first tried his hand at playing violin, trading that in for a trumpet before finally settling on the guitar. Having played in rock bands as a teenager, he studied first at the Helsinki Conservatory, then at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving back to Helsinki in 1981.Since then he has been an active member of many music scenes, developing a bold approach to playing electric guitar and composing eclectic music for big bands, symphony orchestras, films, modern dance companies and his own groups.
Björkenheim formed several bands upon his return to Helsinki, most importantly Arbuusi, Roommushklahn and Symbioosi, and in 1983, he met the guru of Finnish free jazz, Edward Vesala. This led to an intense four-year apprenticeship in Vesala’s group “Sound & Fury”, a master’s class in improvisation. In 1987 Björkenheim formed what was to be one of his major groups, Krakatau.
Several influential recordings for ECM with Vesala and Krakatau brought Björkenheim to the attention of the international community, leading to encounters with musicians such as Juhani Aaltonen, Bill Laswell, Anthony Braxton, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Mats Gustafsson, Henry Kaiser, Elliot Sharp, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Lukas Ligeti.
Björkenheim has been a soloist with the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, the Avanti Chamber Orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestra, the UMO big band and the Tampere philharmonic, with material ranging from Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise” to Turnage’s “Blood on the Floor”, as well as his own concerto “Situations”. Most recently he recorded Arnhem’s “Signals” with the accordionist Frode Haltli.
Today Björkenheim’s main performing energies are brought into focus through his quartet Ecstasy, Triad, Blixt with Bill Laswell and Morgan Ågren, Scorch quartet, and solo guitar.
Björkenheim has been awarded the Georgie Prize for best jazz musician of the year, the Young Finland Award, the Emma prize (finnish grammy) for best jazz recording of the year, and been nominated three times for the Nordic Music Award.