Mika Pohjola: The Ever Search

Maxwell Chandler By

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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.

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