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Mika Pohjola: The Ever Search

Maxwell Chandler By

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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.


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