Mika Pohjola: The Ever Search

Maxwell Chandler By

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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.


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