Verneri Pohjola - The reluctant leader of the jazz pack
by Petri Silas :: 2005
When you are the son of a legendary musician and the leader of a group that has achieved accolade after accolade with its very first album, you need to be able to keep your mind focused. Luckily for Verneri Pohjola, this is no problem. The trumpeter keeps his head clear and stands on his own two feet.
Although he is the offspring of celebrated bassist/composer Pekka Pohjola and thus a descendant of the Pohjola music dynasty and a relative of such luminaries as conductor Sakari Oramo, it took Verneri Pohjola quite a while to get into music. In his early teens this native of Helsinki was more interested in playing computer games and dabbling with radio-controlled cars.
"Swimming has also been a favourite pastime of mine for a long time," the 27-year old musician reminisces today. "I have been asthmatic ever since a little kid, so cool water was always an alluring environment for me, especially in summer."
As with all young boys, the model set by siblings is very important. It thus comes as no surprise to hear that Verneri got into music on seeing his younger brother Ilmari play the trombone.
"The first type of music I really connected with was soundtrack music. Festive and grandiose scores to equally grandiose movies like Star Wars made me sit up and take notice. The real turnaround came when I attended a summer camp orchestra concert where Ilmari played the trombone. Among the pieces performed by the brass band was some music from the Indiana Jones films. I was hooked from that very instant."
Since the budding musician was already in his teens – fifteen, to be exact – he soon realised that he was too old to start on the violin or any other stringed instrument. Perhaps subconsciously following Ilmari's lead, he decided that brass would be his thing. The trumpet felt like the right choice from the start, and after some classical studies it was time to enrol at the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory. A latecomer to the world of music, he purchased his very first CD at around the same time.
"Someone had made my brother a tape where the a-side consisted of Maceo Parker and the b-side the Brecker Brothers. This was the first time I heard trumpet played in a funk/fusion style, and soon after I bought the album called 'Return of the Brecker Brothers' (1992). This CD was a definite turning point for me. I used to listen to it many times a day for quite a long period. The energy of the music was extremely appealing."
It is easy to see why the sound of the Brecker Brothers appealed to Pohjola: Their brand of turbo-charged jazz fusion is very sophisticated and the sound is crystal clear – just like in intricately orchestrated soundtrack pieces.
"It actually took me a while to acquire the taste for old jazz albums, where the technical quality of the recording is often poor. But once I stopped looking for that modern hi-fi sound, I became completely addicted to the likes of Clifford Brown, who is still one of my heroes. I was around seventeen years old when I decided to pursue music full-time. This was highly naive and I have since decided otherwise. But at the moment it seems that making a living by making music is not such a bad idea."
While studying at the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory and the Örebro Music School in Sweden, Pohjola was swept away by the force of improvised music. He has fond memories of his time in Sweden, as it was there he came across the music of Per Jørgensen. Lauded for his melodic and structured improvisations, this Norwegian trumpeter seemed to be playing the kind of music Pohjola had begun hearing in his own head.
"Right before that I had actually come close to quitting the trumpet altogether," he states, and continues that had he not discovered Jørgensen's style and heard the encouraging words of his teacher Rolf Ekström, he would probably be doing something completely different now.
From questioning to the President's stamp of approval
In 1999 Verneri Pohjola applied for the Sibelius Academy Jazz Department for the second time and was accepted. This meant that he would move back to Helsinki and say "no" to a job offered him in Örebro by Ekström teaching children the trumpet. He was 21, and very typically for him, constantly questioning his choices.
"The people admitted to the Jazz Department usually know their jazz basics and general music theory inside out. As this was not the case with me, my mood was very low for a while. But my life is a constant rollercoaster anyhow, so I just gritted my teeth. All in all, I like to think that the experience helped me learn to control and cope with my mood swings."
Luckily Pohjola stuck to his guns, as studying at the Sibelius Academy helped him make friends with pianist Tuomo Prättälä, bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Olavi Louhivuori. After some time had passed and various jams had been jammed, he invited these young men to co-found the Ilmiliekki Quartet with him in early 2002. Within two years, the band had released its debut album, 'March of the Alpha Males', to massive critical acclaim.
Soon after, things began snowballing. The band that had already pocketed first prize in the 2002 Young Nordic Jazz Comets contest was nominated “Young Artist of the Year” by Finland Festivals. Then it was awarded the Teosto Prize founded by the Finnish Composers' Copyright Society Teosto to promote local music. In addition, Verneri was chosen as “Artist of the Year” by the Pori Jazz festival.
In December 2004, the Ilmiliekki Quartet was invited to perform at the official Independence Day reception given by the Finnish President of the Republic Tarja Halonen. This tradition was started in 1995, when Martti Ahtisaari featured the Trio Töykeät as part of the evening's programme.
"Mrs Halonen asked Ilmari and me if we could come up with something for the party. As she had seen our rock band Silvio perform the previous summer at the Art Goes Kapakka festival in Helsinki, we decided that Ilmiliekki and Silvio would be a good pairing."
Pohjola is naturally happy with all the attention the Ilmiliekki Quartet has aroused. But even though he is the leader of this particular band, he is also active in a number of other groups such as Silvio – where he plays the drums – and Quintessence, its various offshoot projects like the Q-Continuum, and the large ensemble Suhkan Uhka of bassist Antti Hytti and saxophonist Jone Takamäki. It goes without saying that he is willing to try out numerous different musical environments.
Natural father-son partnership
Verneri and his father stood on stage together for the first time in September 2002 at the Tampere Hall. In a way, this was all part of the process of the son getting to know the father: Verneri and Ilmari have lived with their mother Inkeri ever since she divorced Pekka Pohjola in 1981.
"Ilmari and I did first appear on Pekka's album Views (2001), but I really can't recall the exact hows and whys of ending up in his so called acoustic band alongside pianist Seppo Kantonen, accordionist Veli Kujala and drummer Mika Kallio. But that particular performance was a fun experience, no doubt about it."
Verneri says that his and his father's paths crossed when he began attending the gigs of the Pekka Pohjola Group in his late teens. Before that he hadn't paid much attention to the fact that his father was nothing if not a living legend, a former member of the progressive rock superstars Wigwam, one of the most important figures on the Finnish jazz-rock scene, and a composer of passionate pieces for orchestras of varying sizes.
Verneri even has a signature tune on Pohjola Senior's album 'Jokamies' from 1983, but the composition has never carried any special meaning for him – or even his father, he reckons.
"I haven't discussed it with Pekka, so I may be totally wrong. But somehow I am inclined to think that in this case he came up with the music before the title 'Blues for Verneri'. In my experience, this procedure is common among composers. I don't believe there are many tunes written from beginning to end with one particular person in mind."
"All in all, I have never really listened to Pekka's music on albums. 'Blues for Verneri' I have heard only once. But all this may sound more tragic than it really is. Pekka has never been all that distant to me, but the fact is that he just hasn't been a natural part of my everyday life or Ilmari's."
If anything, Verneri believes that being around his father has taught him to be more self-confident and self-reliant. On a general level, he is fully aware of how being the son of Pekka Pohjola may sometimes be not such a good thing. And on a personal level, he knows which aspects of the Pohjola bloodline are best ignored – should they rear their ugly heads.
But if the truth be told, such is the sheer talent and vision of Verneri Pohjola that he should have no trouble strengthening the stature he has already achieved on his own terms. Just recently, particularly, he seems to have received a vast amount of hype and positive criticism.
"Luckily I am not responsible for the reviews and articles written about me or my music. This is the concept I try to keep in mind first and foremost. It is actually very useful as it applies both to good reviews and bad ones."
In 2005, Pohjola's diary looks to be quite full. He is, for example, thinking of making a solo album and hoping to find the time to concentrate on Ilmiliekki Quartet's sophomore effort.
"Our record company would like to have the second Ilmiliekki album out by the autumn, but I really can't promise that. We have a handful of new tunes ready and I have already looked at some possible cover tunes. It's even quite possible that my old favourite group Queen will be the band we tackle next after Radiohead, Ornette Coleman, and Björk."
And of course, there is life elsewhere as well. Pohjola is eager for the weather to improve so he can rekindle his love affair with the sport of sports: Soccer.
"Our team is called AC Jupiter – after the label for which Quintessence, Silvio and other fine groups record. My brother Ipi is something of a driving force behind it and some of the more active players include Antti Lötjönen, Olavi Louhivuori, our record label boss Martsa Heikkinen and Juhani Ahola, who plays the guitar in Silvio."
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 2/2005.
© Maarit Kytöharju / Fimic