The award-winning trumpeter Verneri Pohjola speaks of showcase festivals, the “coolness” of Finnish jazz and how he is finally at ease with his father.
The life of a virtuoso is hectic: during the last couple of weeks trumpeter Verneri Pohjola has been making music in both Ireland and Iceland. I catch him on the phone from his home in Helsinki in the middle of his normal everyday things, such as picking his offspring from school.
“In Iceland I was rehearsing with pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs for our showcase gig at the Jazzahead festival. For me it’s always a bit hard to make myself easy for short 25–30 minute showcase gigs. I like it when music happens in a slower, more natural pace.”
Verneri Pohjola is one of the most visible characters in the Finnish contemporary jazz community. His evocative playing has a distinct sense of tranquility and certainty that has molded the modern Finnish sound. This has granted him a handful of different musical prizes and a status as a reliable household name.
My skills are a combination of childlike enthusiasm and valuable education.
Apart from his outstanding solo work and his bands like Ilmiliekki Quartet or neo-soul outfit Quintessence, Pohjola has lent his skills to the jazzy hip hop ensemble Don Johnson Big Band and hard rockers Hanoi Rocks – just to name a few.
How did the 41-year-old trumpeter become so good?
“It all started from my own enthusiasm, the overwhelming will to make music! Of course I’ve been lucky too: when I was studying in the late nineties and early two-thousands I got to meet great colleagues in my class, and at that time musical studies were more securely funded. I’d say that my skills are a combination of childlike enthusiasm and valuable education.”
The modest trumpeter finds his strengths in his ways of rehearsing.
“These days I practice way more than I did during my study time. Back then I had to focus on so many things at once because of different school projects. Now I can really focus on my own ideas and refine them onward.”
It's a family affair
Pohjola’s life has always circulated around music and art. His father, the revered bassist and composer Pekka Pohjola, was a prominent figure in Finnish and European rock and jazz throughout the decades until his death in 2008. His mother Inkeri Pohjola has worked as a ballet dancer as well as a pianist.
Verneri grabbed the trumpet at the age of fifteen. He wanted to join a brass band with his trombone playing brother Ilmari, who’s also made a successful career in Finnish jazz and pop.
“Of course I’ve listened to a lot of Miles Davis”, Pohjola answers when being asked about his idols.
“But that was more for my studies. At school they gave tasks like ‘learn this Miles solo from this and this track’. I’ve always been keen on improvising, and that kind of learning felt too rigid and technical for me. But later on I’ve learned to respect that point of view. It has given me a handful of tools in improvising and composing.”
I don’t have music as mere background noise in my home. I rather go see a band live, because it forces you to really focus on the music for an hour or so.
The first jazz act to blow Pohjola’s mind was the Brecker Brothers, a classic jazz fusion group from the late 1970s.
“It was so outrageously different from the music I was used to. Randy Brecker’s sharp trumpet had its roots in the classical world, but the context that he used it in was something else.”
Yet he highlights that the aforementioned names have been rather footnotes than great influencers to his playing.
“My interests and ideals have changed a lot during the years. For example, at first I thought that the great Clifford Brown sounded weak just because his style was different. But nowadays I love him deeply!”
“I tend to listen music in a very analytical way. For instance, I don’t have music as mere background noise in my home. I rather go see a band live, because it forces you to really focus on the music for an hour or so.”
Like father unlike son
The year 2017 was a big one for Verneri Pohjola. He was awarded the Yrjö Jazz Prize, an award given annually by the Finnish Jazz Association to a Finnish jazz musician in acknowledgement of their contributions to Finnish jazz music. He also starred in a documentary film and made the album Pekka, where he and his quintet play the music of his father Pekka Pohjola.
He has spoken openly of his difficult relation to the late bass legend. He doesn’t find Pekka as an homage album per se. It’s more of an interpretation of his compositions.
Pekka was always very strict about how his music was supposed to be played. They were compositions that had to be executed in a certain manner. I didn’t want to do that.
The sound surely is different: if the father was known for hectic and technically challenging progressive passages, the son deconstructs the music to abstract and grand meditations.
“The thing is, that Pekka was always very strict about how his music was supposed to be played. They were compositions that had to be executed in a certain manner. I didn’t want to do that. As a lover of improvisation I wanted to keep the pieces open and breathing!”
These days the trumpeter finds himself at ease with his father. He says that the Pekka project was the most fun he had with music in ages, and that it was a gateway out many things that had been troubling him for years.
“I no longer mind being the son of Pekka Pohjola”, he laughs.
A world of power relationships
Up next Pohjola is heading for the Jazzahead festival in Germany. It’s an important forum for jazz artists around Europe to meet each other and get scouted by agents.
He acknowledges that the showcase culture might still come off as frightening: after all the small concert slots in between a myriad of others and in front of agencies might not grant anything, such as great gigs or tours.
“Jazzahead is a world of power relationships and contacts! It’s a festival so huge that you really get to know your smallness. About four or five years ago I just made the decision to go there every year and see what happens. At least it’s a good way to get your music out of Finland.”
Jazzahead is a world of power relationships and contacts! It’s a festival so huge that you really get to know your smallness.
Luckily Pohjola has been successful. For instance, this year he planned not to attend the festival at all, but then he heard that the Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs had organised a gig for him to feature on.
“She had just forgotten to tell me about it”, he chuckles.
Another ensemble Pohjola is playing with at Jazzahead is the Janning Trumann 6. Additionally, there will be a solo performance during the Clubnight on April 27th (find all Pohjola's Jazzahead dates, showtimes and locations at the end of this article).
Make Finnish jazz cool again
When we try to distinguish the essence of Finnish jazz, the most we can come up with is the word “diverse”. For instance, Norwegian jazz has a reputation of having an “icy” and “Scandinavian” tone in it. This isn’t the case with Finnish jazz.
“People abroad really don’t know what to expect from Finnish jazz, because it doesn’t have a certain style – and that’s great!”
From the younger generation Pohjola mentions names like Adele Sauros or OK:KO who have “their own wild thing going on”.
People abroad really don’t know what to expect from Finnish jazz, because it doesn’t have a certain style – and that’s great!
“I’ve gotten the impression that Finland might not be such a cool of a country your average jazz listener. But when they get to know what’s going on in Finland, it’s suddenly damn cool! I’m personally trying to do my best to make sure that Finnish jazz will be recognized as cool as ever.”
Verneri Pohjola performing at Jazzahead 2019:
- Friday April 26th, 03:45–04:15 PM at Kulturzentrum Schlachthof – with Sunna Gunnlaugs
- Saturday April 27th, 06:05–06:35 PM at Hall 7.2 – with Janning Trumann 6
- Saturday April 27th, 07:00–07:40 PM at Karton – solo performance