Kimmo Pohjonen: Accordionist Extraordinaire

Anthony Shaw By

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With the aid of added microphones, digital relays and delays, he has dragged the accordion wheezing, shrieking and wailing into the new century
kimmo pohjonen To claim that behind every successful man is a strong woman is clearly twaddle. To say that behind every successful (read busy!) Finnish musician is, in one form or another, the Sibelius Academy, is much closer to the mark. Accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen served his time in both the classical Helsinki Conservatory and then the Academy's Folk Music Departments, before stepping out on his glittering solo career in 1996.

From that first concert on, and with the aid of added microphones, digital relays and delays, he has dragged the accordion wheezing, shrieking and wailing into the new century. Taking it by its bellows, and with an acute awareness both of the prejudices the instrument brings as well as the visual appeal it can also offer, he has composed and performed in a multiplicity of styles and tastes. Starting with recordings of modern Finnish folk pieces during his student days, along with JPP founder Arto Järvelä in Pinnin Pojat, Pohjonen progressed to a place in the band of Finnish punk poet and musician Ismo Alanko Säätiö, then to the founding of an ongoing relationship with percussionist and sampling artist Samuli Kosminen in Kluster.

Along the way, he has followed his instinct for experimentation (hear the final five minutes of hidden sounds on track ten, "Avanto, of his 2002 CD Kluster) and developed his contacts within the Finnish artistic establishment, with filmmakers, choreographers and dancers, and produced film and ballet scores. A major leap forward occurred in spring 1999 when he opened the night in Austin for King Crimson's ProjeKct Three. Nowadays he has a continuing involvement with Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto, working under the title KTU (pronounced like the holy Tibetan peak, K2). But don't confuse this with the Finnish traditional ladies gymnastics association of the same acronym!

Inspired by a commission initiated by Kronos Quartet leader David Harrington and first performed in Helsinki in summer of 2004, Pohjonen has lately extended his modus operandi back towards his classical roots. Entitled Uniko, the piece is being performed in Finland with local string quartet Proton, along with a new sampling specialist Juuso Hannukainen, before Pohjonen brings it to the States for its US premiere at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2007. Then he will be reunited with his long-term sampling partner Kosminen and the Kronos Quartet. AAJ met Pohjonen in this Helsinki garden on a sunny July afternoon, soon after he had returned home from a major KTU concert in Jaen, Spain.

All About Jazz: So, you are having a busy summer?

Kimmo Pohjonen: Yes, I just got back from a great concert with KTU performing at 2:30 in the morning to over 20,000 people!

AAJ: That's a long way from your roots in The Accordion Club of Viiala [a village just south of Tampere].

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KP: True. My father introduced me to the instrument first when I was about ten, and then I started going along to the club. I was the only young boy there, with this huge instrument and a bunch of old guys playing accordion tunes, under my first teacher Voitto Mäkelä. He also introduced me to dance music played in restaurants which was very popular here still in the 1970's. I suppose that's where my professional career began.

AAJ: But surely things only took off after you moved to Helsinki?

KP: Yeah—and not so quickly either! I first came to Helsinki when I was 16 to study classical accordion here at the Helsinki Conservatory. It was pretty tough for a number of years attending lessons, playing, and practicing seven or eight hours every day—you know, Bach, organ compositions, and pieces for classical accordion. It was a very tight and narrow range, really incredibly far from what I do now.

In those days I never expected to play my own music. At that time classical pieces were the way to get really deeper into the music if one didn't want just to play dance music or folk tunes. At that time, the late 70's, I really thought I was going to be a concert accordionist with a dark suit and tie.

AAJ: So how did you make this leap in the dark, into the folk genre?

KP: I had a kind of revelation! I went to a concert by a group of students from the Folk Music Department of Sibelius Academy. It was Maria Kalaniemi, Arto Järvelä and three other girls—a band called Niekku. They were playing without sheet music. It was so refreshing after all that studying and practicing I had been doing. So I applied to join to their department, and not so long after, I was playing with them.

AAJ: And this was the time when you started experimenting in your music?

KP: Absolutely. And it was mainly one man who was responsible for this—Heikki Laitinen. He was the leader of the department, and he was the one who had this philosophy of "If you want to do it, you can. He was particularly keen that as musicians we would find and develop our creative skills. He more or less forced us to start composing, and then as well to develop our singing voices too. So without him, I don't know where I would be today—no voicing, maybe no experimentation.

kimmo pohjonen

AAJ: You played with Arto Järvelä for a few years in Pinnin Pojat?

KP: I suppose that was an important transition period for me. We were both living in Helsinki, and we played a lot around Finland and Europe. We even had some tours of the Far East—India and Pakistan—and South America too. And of course this opened my eyes to other music.

AAJ: You really started to broaden your horizons then?

KP: Yes, you could say that! I listened at one time to lot of Tex-mex music—Queen Aida and Flaco Jimenez. And then there was an Argentinian period—Piazolla, Dino Saluzzi, Luis Di Matteo—and I visited there in the end of the 1980's too.

AAJ: So really, there have been phases of different influences.

KP: That's right. In those early days, I listened a lot to 1950's Finnish band music like Taito Vainio. And don't forget the time I spent in Africa, in the early 1990's in Tanzania. I played a lot of thumb piano there—the mbira!

AAJ: And around this time you also started to dabble in electronics?

KP: Well, even when I was playing with Arto, I had gotten interested in different effects and sounds. I had tried putting the accordion through a Leslie amp and used some guitar boxes too. But it really took a leap forward when we were invited to play as guests with one of Finland's first ethno-jazz groups, ZetaBoo. Some of them were also students at Sibelius Academy, and it was their guitarist, Jarmo Saari , who showed me his equipment [looping and sampling devices]. It hit me like a thunderbolt that I could use something similar, and with additional microphones too. This was just before I had my first solo concert around 1996, so I just had time to build up some simple effects to use there.

AAJ: And we can hear these effects on your first album, Kielo (Rockadillo Records, 1999)?

KP: Well, by that time I had been playing with Ismo Alanko's Säätiö for a while, and I had refined the sounds a little, I think. He is a very influential artist for my generation [the founding member of the defining Finnish punk band, Sielun Veljet] and this band had many virtuoso musicians [Marko Timonen on drums, Samuli Laiho on guitar, and Samuli "Teho Majamäki on vibes, winds and assorted percussion]. Playing with them really helped me extend my sonic palette!

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