Mika Pohjola: The Ever Search

Maxwell Chandler By

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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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