Mika Pohjola: The Ever Search


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From studying music theory with his father to attending Vantaa Music Institute and the Royal College of Music, Mika Pohjola's life has been entwined with both music and the pursuit of knowledge. His work mirrors his desire to journey ever outward, searching for ways to incorporate the various influences and inspirations which have helped him create an oeuvre which defies easy categorization.

Mika Pohjola

Early Classical Life

All About Jazz: You initially studied piano and music theory with your father, then went on to also sing in the Helsinki Cathedral Boys Choir. In Europe, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Karl Maria Von Weber, there is a rich tradition of future composers taking this route (although not nearly as often in America). How did choir inform the development your playing and writing?

Mika Pohjola: Just on a basic level, it helps with learning to read music and to sight sing—something which I found, to my biggest surprise, that some people didn't find it natural. Developing a relationship between what you see and what you hear at that age, when I was about nine or ten, was very helpful. The leader was a German gentleman, named Heinz Hoffman, who was very strict with us. Kids that age tend to be pretty wild, and I have to say I wasn't very calm myself. His actions to help one "find your own discipline" and not to be disciplined by someone else was very helpful because that's something I have carried on to whatever I've studied since then.

When it came to the music itself, we sang a lot of Bach oratorios and masses. Just hearing that music at that age, and that not everything was homophonic—a lot of my friends were just into pop where everything was just melody and underlying chorus—it was great to be exposed to more "difficult" music. That way, I knew that things could be different.

Just coming to that realization has also helped me quite a bit. But I have to say that my Dad is the biggest inspiration in this whole thing because not only did he expose me to so much classical music, but because he was a jazz guitarist and that was my first connection to jazz. He understands the subtlety of how you inject music into a child's life at an early age. He would play Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel in the morning so I would wake up. That became my childhood music at the age of seven or eight. I listened to Night Train (Verve, 1962) and all those great albums. The entire recording history of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker were childhood memories, which I think is an amazing asset and a privilege which many people don't have.

AAJ: Your initial studies seem to revolve around classical music. What were you listening to at this point?

MP: It went sort of in waves...I would have a couple of months where I would be really into Debussy, and then I would have two months or three months of being really into Bach. Then there would be a year of just jazz. My classical piano teacher at the conservatory outside Helsinki would complain at me because I would change stuff, and it would give me a boost of confidence. I would say things aren't necessarily so when someone would say you have to play according to the style or according to the composer's intentions. I would do stuff like that pretty early on, and I got a lot of resistance for it. Finally, when I was around 14 or 15, with my jazz enthusiasm, I was already improvising quite a bit at that point because I played with other students. They realized they weren't going to make me a classical concert pianist no matter what they hoped.

AAJ: From your early educational foundation you went on to Vantaa Music Institute for classical piano, music theory and counterpoint. You then moved to Stockholm to study jazz music. Was there a clear delineation in your mind between playing and writing of the two styles of music (jazz and classical) which made you feel you had to finish your studies on one before delving into the other?

MP: That's what everybody says that you have to do. At that point, I was very strongly under that impression. The European tradition is how you study the instrument—the piano—because that's the foundation of the mechanics and the playing tradition of that instrument, in contrast to the saxophone which has two parallel paths in both the European classical tradition and jazz—perhaps even much more in jazz.

Mika PohjollaPiano existed long before jazz, so I felt that was what I had to do. On the other hand, my entire surroundings told me that you have to study classical music or else you can't be a musician, which I completely resent, especially these days. You can have a strong foundation in any kind of music. Look at all those great folk musicians—they don't study the European tradition. There is something very ethnocentric about saying that is the music to study. There is something very fragile about music at an early age; it is easy to get tired or bored. So the more young kids can just keep their inspiration going, the better it is, no matter what music it is.

I was into classical music partly because everybody told me I had to be but also because I actually love that music. I had many favorite composers in the European tradition. That is not to say that because I am from Europe that I would be more of a classical musician than somebody who has studied classical music in America. I'm just as much of a jazz musician because I have heard jazz from an early age and I feel like I am completely at home here as a jazz musician.

AAJ: For the first half of the 20th century in America, jazz was very much a second-class citizen, at least academically. In this sense, Europe has often been seen to possess a greater respect for the genre. You attended The Royal Swedish Academy, Sodra Latin Gymnasium. You then went to Berklee College of Music In Boston. Did you feel any sort of dichotomy in how studying jazz was perceived between Europe and America?

MP: Wow, I have to think about that. The years when I went to those schools in Sweden, there was a really strong gap. It was sort of mixed with a fusion sort of interest. There was a lot of that going on, and I would say that it was appreciated as much academically as classical music. The biggest reason for that was because there was so much talent around in those years. Also, Sweden is a very open country for jazz. As you may know, many jazz musicians from here had visited and even lived in Sweden as far back as the '40s and '50s. They have partly planted the aesthetics that jazz is valuable music in the world. I think that France and Sweden were the first ones to adopt those values and really appreciate it along with some circles in the US.

Mika Pohjola

Nowadays it is completely different. You can study it all and there are books out there. You are raising, at the same time, a question that has to do with academics itself, and I would have to say that classical and jazz music don't correspond to academics in general very well. It's a copy from other fields and where we are trying to find a standard of who is important in some kind of music or who has achieved a certain level according to some parameters. Those who set those parameters are not necessarily those who know the best. So those musicians who are around, they are not in academics at all. Especially in jazz, which has evolved from completely different roots, having roots in New Orleans, New York, partly Chicago, later the West Coast and scattered parts of Europe. It has grown in a different way than European classical music.

It started with the same idea that you had to learn these things, and then you play these tunes, and then we are going to test you. First of all, testing all those things in the morning hours may not be the best thing to do. The whole thing would have to be revisited, I think, and if that doesn't work in academics, we may have to drop academic values from jazz altogether because I don't think that the schools are reflecting what's happening out in the world. There is a clear disconnect between them.

If you really need to make a school out of jazz—which has been tried since Lennie Tristano's time, and Berklee was founded in 1945—you have to put your real life example as your norm. It's not the same as studying law and taking the bar exam; that's not the norm for jazz.

AAJ: While at Berklee you met a lot of kindred spirits, yet upon graduation (1994) you moved to New York City. This seems to be a common migratory pattern. Did you find there is something unique to Boston, an insular environment that makes it perfect to study in but not to work/live?

MP: There is something to that. I don't think it is the environment which makes it difficult to work there after graduation. I think it is more about you. When you study in an environment which is academic, it is an academic environment because you studied there. If I had studied in New York and the Boston jazz scene was as vibrant as the New York one is, I could have easily just as well gone there because that's a change in my life. I think it has something to do with that.

When you graduate and when you know that you are ready to take the next step, you have to try your luck out there in the world to see what your worth is in front of an audience and how well you perform, how nervous you are. If you go back to your studying environment, you are not really testing yourself.

There is nothing wrong with Boston as a working environment. It is not only a university town; I have been lecturing now at Berklee for a few years and I know how much fun it is to go there. It is not about a safety net or some sort of nostalgia at all—it has changed so much that nostalgia no longer exists there, anyway. It is really a good working environment. It is really up to the individual what you make out of it, each city.

Folkloric Components and Identity

AAJ: In 1994, you cut your first album Myths and Beliefs (GM Recordings). From that first album to your current one Northern Sunrise (Blue Music Group, 2009), do you feel you have earned more artistic freedom in what you can record, or has that always been implicitly part of the package on whatever label you are recording for?

Mika Pohjola

MP: It's not entirely true that Myths and Beliefs is my first album. It was my first released album. Reflections in Real Time is actually my first recorded album. It was recorded from 1991-94 in three different sessions.

I have so many friends who have been with labels which have producers clearly inferior to the musicians' visions. They have some other power there to get certain musicians to record certain songs or use certain accompanying musicians for economic reasons. I have been very lucky because of people like Gunther Schuller and a few labels in Europe. I have recorded independently and I have been able to tell them that this is the master and I hope you will release it, and if not, well sorry. That's what I have had to tell them because I feel there is an entirety to recording which I can't just let go. I have been very independent when it comes to my visions, so if there is anything wrong with them, you can't blame anyone else.

Some of my friends have garnered attention very quickly. They deserve it, but it is also because they have done the right sort of visions for their field or market. I think because I have been doing my own thing, I have been moving steadily along. I have just always been around. I have heard the horror stories that the faster you go up the ladder, the faster you fall. It isn't a question of fame; a musician needs an audience. We need an audience to come out to the clubs and to listen to the records.

It's almost like we aren't talking about a human life any more but just a quick profit center, which may suit for other businesses but definitely not for music, which is so personal. It is a personal creation and something that follows a musician all of his/her life. The way you progress as a human being is how you progress as a musician. If there is no audience, that progression will actually take a turn for the worse, and that's not fair. I have sympathy for those who have been dropped from a big label and haven't done well after. I can't complain about anything. I have done great by not being great.

I have done 26 albums, but I have been very careful about each production. I just never cared about moving 1,000 copies or 10,000 copies. The most successful things I have done have been in Japan or Scandinavia, but then I have other ones which have barely made it to 1000, and that's fine because it still exists and maybe someone will listen to it one day.

AAJ: Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Mahler all, to varying degrees, have used their nations' folk music or motifs derived from such sources in their compositions. You have done arrangements of traditional Scandinavian folk songs. To what extent is an ethno-national component part of your overall artistic identity?

MP: It may be some, but I don't think that way. If an analyst or historian says that it is and that my playing reflects some of that music, then it is a compliment because it means I am true to what I have heard and where I come from. It is not anything that I really pay attention to, not even when I make arrangements of that kind of music. Something I love about Scandinavian music, Swedish, troubadour, religion, earlier folk music and some of the Finnish music from the Second World War—the great thing is the lyrics. I love English lyrics too; in fact, I love the Broadway music from the '40s as well.

The Scandinavian material—for me, they are sources of musical material. I have a little advantage, since I speak Swedish and Finnish as my native language, that I understand the lyrics deeper, the same way you would probably assume Jobim has meaning for somebody from Brazil. It doesn't necessarily mean that I feel myself just a Scandinavian musician, making myself any different from a U.S. musician. That would mean I couldn't play the blues as well.

I have lived half of my life in the U.S., and I feel like the American traditions are very important to me because I have been here for so long and because the jazz community here is a big part of my life. But maybe going back before that, there are two different branches of derivation of material: one of them is the Broadway tradition and the other is the Scandinavian tradition. I try to portray those different things in my music, not necessarily in just extreme examples like Swedish traditional songs but just in anything that I do. I hope it all comes together to what I am.

AAJ: Do you find, after decades as a musician/composer, that how and when you listen to music has changed?

MP: Oh, yeah. You can listen to music in so many different ways. It used to be very genre-oriented before. When I was 15, I would hear a swing tune and I would like it or hear a piano trio play mainstream jazz and I would like it. It didn't matter if they played well, were having a good time or if it had a good feel. It would just be jazz and that would be great. That would be enough.

Then I had a period when I would listen to certain artists and I would accept everything that they did. If I heard any piece by John Coltrane, it was like, "Wow, that's great!" It's not that I like John Coltrane less today than I did then. It is just that when I listen now, it is not so opinionated. That even has to do with pop.

Mika PohjollaIf I heard a recording of an artist from the '60s and now I hear him live, I wonder what has happened to him in between, because now he plays completely differently. It is not better or worse, it's just different. I wonder what led him to this place. I try to find a connection in music listening to what those people's lives really are. It's never possible entirely, but I try to come to an understanding of the values and thoughts which are behind a musician because that is how he expresses himself. He does it in a different way than journalists or poets or screenplay writers or other people of various arts; he does it in a more elusive way. So I am trying to figure out what this musician is all about and really thinking.

When it comes to older musicians, people who are no longer here, I am trying to understand what their time was like. When you hear a lot of military-like music, you understand that war was a reality for people. There was something where tanks came into your town and you didn't know if you would have food the next day. That affects the music being created at that moment.

So I try to understand the world and history from music. This gives me a limitation because I don't get a clear picture of what has happened in China and India on that level. This is limited to the Western world, the way I can do this. There is a specific sound from the early 20th century in New England—composers like Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. I love that sound which is truly their own but it also expresses something from their time, which is very different from what Northeastern America is today. I always try to understand what is behind the music, not just if it is good, bad or if I like it. If I start thinking so much about whether I like it or not then I am limiting myself from finding out what it is.

Music is becoming a delivery of a persona. I am trying to understand the person by listening to their music.

Northern Sunrise

AAJ: There is a poetic beauty to your pieces, the solos and the way they fit into a piece. How important is it to have an improvisational aspect to each work?

Mika PohjollaMP: It's not imperative. There is a whole scale between just writing a piece—which is sort of the classical tradition from the early 19th century until almost now, where music is being written with "consideration"—and then there is the other extreme of improvisation where there is no consideration of style in usage—where you may meet somebody who is improvising but doing so in a completely different way, which I did once in Japan with a Taiko drummer.

She was a modern percussionist who had a background in Japanese folk music, not a jazz musician at all. We had no common repertoire. That was among the most interesting things I have ever done because this was somebody completely open to our things and I had to be completely open to hers, otherwise it wouldn't work. It wasn't that we had an idea that we were going to improvise, play jazz or some sort of organic, groove-oriented whatever. We had absolutely no idea of what we were going to do. So it took a while to get into the idea, and I could feel how the audience was just as excited, being something between excited and anxious, about where this would go. I wasn't sure if I would come clean out of this, but in the end it worked out.

In the beginning, I was wondering about this being a big teaching experience in understanding what improvisation really is. That's the other extreme, and then there is everything in between: where you can have a melody with some chords and you play along the chords in form—that which is known as "soloing" in jazz is surprisingly limiting in improvisational expression because you have most parameters set and they are already fixed into what that tune will be all about.

The more I can stretch, not necessarily on the harmonic ideas but on the stylistic ideas, and be influenced by somebody who is not in that tradition, the pressure is released because I have to reach that myself. That is really what I am trying to do now. Improvisational elements are important, but there is the whole scale and you can decide if it is completely improvised or not at all. I hope that there are many different kinds in between these things.

AAJ: On your newest album, Northern Sunrise, there is a tight but loose overall feel, the interplay providing the tight aspect. To what extent do you work with the band on their solo statements?

MP: There are some tracks that are completely improvised on that album and some that are not. I try not to make a difference between what is what. I guess you can tell. The idea is not to know any difference between these things.

When I work with the ensemble, I don't say anything. I just put the sheet music in front of them and hope that everything I write out is as clear as possible. That means we don't have to talk about technical aspects of where you jump from one place to another; this is a huge waste of time if you have to work with technical things: wrong notes, bad chord symbols or any of that stuff. I try to do my homework so that they can get into the music as quickly as possible. When we rehearse, I try to listen to what's really coming out of the band. I tend to play less in those kind of situations because I am listening but also because I don't want to support them as much with what I have to say, but instead see what they have to bring to the table and then, when I am ready, how that will match.

That is not to say that I have to be the biggest influence in the band, which I feel that I am. I just want to see how they have understood what I've done first. If something is clearly not working, I try to find a metaphor or something very brief that they will absolutely remember, and that will explain everything that I want in that particular piece, not so much technical terms like play faster, louder, more or less.

AAJ: Northern Sunrise has, among other covers, Charles Mingus/Duke Ellington' Sound of Love." Clocking in at a little over three minutes, there still manages to be a suite-like feel to it. Do you find that live pieces grow?

MP: Oh, yeah! When I played with Miguel Zenon a few years ago, we had certain songs which would always stay the same format time after time because that was the length of the tune, and then others we opened up. It becomes limiting to always think that just because you play live, a song has to be twenty minutes long. A song can perfectly be the same length as it is on the recording and it doesn't have to be all that open and wide; not all songs need to be that way.

That song particularly, I would probably stretch it a little more in a live situation, or I could keep it simple like that. I am not sure how I do it. I haven't really played that song live all that much. I tend to play standard solo piano every once in a while but when it comes to that tune—I will have to try it next time and see how that's working out.

Mika Pohjola

I know that there are some songs that I tend to stretch a lot just because there is a feel to them that allows that approach. There are other songs, that other people stretch a lot, that I just don't think need that, where I prefer a tiny, compact form.

AAJ: When in the process of recording do you try out different instrumentation for a song from what you initially intend?

MP: That can change at any time. I am trying to be less specific in my instructions, saying things like: "A solo sort of on the shorter side" or "Solo—feel free." That means that I am not the only one who created this wave of how long each solo/tune will be, but there will be a common understanding while you are going of how long it will be. I try to think, "Is this a long statement or a short statement?" All of that stuff can change. I find that I cut down on the amount of head that is played; sometimes not all that material is necessary.

AAJ: You have done thematic and programmatic albums. You current one is widely varied in mood from track to track. Is it easier to do an album performance or writing wise one way or another?

MP: Writing arrangements is a thousand times easier than writing new compositions because the tune is often already known to listeners. When writing it, it should always be from the listener's point of view. Arranging poses fewer problems because you have an idea of what the song is about, which is why you chose to write an arrangement of it. In a way, if it has lyrics it is programmatic music, which is easier because you can apply certain things to it and get a faster result, while writing non-programmatic music, you are on your own. There is nobody to help: you don't have birds singing, you don't have wonderful stuff, you don't have any sort of religious help or even any cultural help. I understand those composers who used folk music as their material because that's something they can lean into.

That's another reason why I put standards on my recordings; it gives the listener a break from my work. There is some reference to what I do, but on the other side there is a standard in between—they will have some original feel, yet at the same time are familiar songs.

AAJ: What is your as-yet-unrealized dream project?

MP: I am sure I have one, and when I realize what it is I will do it. I can't say that "I've always been dreaming of doing..." because then your next question should be, "So why haven't you done it?" If you have an idea, then go ahead and do it. If you want to play with a certain musician, then call him up. Time goes forward.

Selected Discography

Mika Pohjola, Northern Sunrise (Blue Music Group, 2009)
Mika Pohjola, Two for the Road (Blue Music Group, 2008)
Mika Pohjola, Swedish traditional Songs (Blue Music Group, 2006)
Mika Pohjola, A Lark in the Snowstorm (Blue Music Group, 2006)
Mika Pohjola, Christmas Carols (Blue Music Group, 2005)
Mika Pohjola, Ball Play (Blue Music Group, 2003)
Mika Pohjola, Landmark (Blue Music Group, 2002)
Mika Pohjola, Sound of Village (Blue Music Group, 2001)
Mika Pohjola, Still Alive (Blue Music Group, 2001)
Mika Pohjola, English Breakfast (Blue Music Group, 1999)
Mika Pohjola, Announcement (Blue Music Group, 1998)
Mika Pohjola, The Secret of the Castle (Blue Music Group, 1997)
Mika Pohjola, Jazz Capital of the World (Blue Music Group, 1996)
Mika Pohjola, Reflections in Real Time (Blue Music Group, 1994)
Mika Pohjola, Myths and Beliefs (GM Recordings, 1994)

Photo Credits

All Photos Courtesy of Mika Pohjola

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