Remembering Pekka Pohjola

Anthony Shaw BY

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Regarded by all as the finest bass guitarist ever to come out of Finland, and a composer who inspired a whole generation of late twentieth century Finnish musicians, Pekka Pohjola died near Helsinki on November 27 2008, aged 56. Although he lived his last years far from the lime-lights which he frequented in the 1970s and 80s, he is revered by many Europeans of his generation as a scion of the music for which his country has long been famous—dark, portentous instrumental contemplations, but which regularly include a teasing twist in the tail.

Pohjola's musical output took influences from jazz, rock, folk music and even traditional hymns. The son of a prominent local choirmaster, he initially studied classical music at the Sibelius Academy (piano & violin) and he came close to winning the Finnish nationals on the latter instrument. But soon his interest veered to the electric bass, allegedly inspired by The Beatles. He began playing with the locally influential Eero, Jussi and The Boys, before moving in 1970 to the band which soon had the closest brush any Finnish group ever had with international success - Wigwam. Arguably involved with the most creative examples of this band's output, Tombstone Valentine and Fairyport, he left after just two years of intense touring in Scandinavia and Europe to pursue his own projects.

Pekka recorded his first solo album, the delicious intricate Pihkasilma Kaarnakorva (Resin Eye Bark Ear) during his Wigwam days. His second Harakka Bialoipokku, (B The Magpie) and third (The Mathematician's Air Display) albums were both released internationally by Virgin Records. Pohjola's involvement with Wigwam had brought him to the attention of Virgin's director Richard Branson, who was influential in linking him with Mike Oldfield. The Englishman both played on and produced the third album. This period saw the development of an increasingly jazz fusion style, sometimes compared with Frank Zappa in their complex arrangements and instrumentation, and he was reputedly even offered a position in the band by the man himself.

Always in demand as a session musician locally, Pohjola also toured with Oldfield's Tubular Bells in 1978. In 1977 he formed The Group with Finnish musicians, recording their eponymous album in the same year. Pekka's fourth solo album Visitation was released in 1979 with many of the same musicians, and with its fantasy influenced themes was more of a critical success. In 1980 The Group became the Pekka Pohjola Group and they released the album Katkavaaran Lohikaarme (The Dragon of Katkavaara Mountain) with a similarly melodic, sometimes wistful style. The band continued to tour extensively in Europe in the early 80s, with varying line-ups performing Pohjola's pieces, but steadily his energies were more focused on composition than performance. The sponsors in the 90s were often big bands, like the UMO Jazz Orchestra, and even the modern Finnish chamber orchestra Avanti!, with whom he also recorded.

The extent of Pohjola's legacy is witnessed by DJ Shadow, who took a sample of Pohjola's bass line in "The Madness Subsides" from B the Magpie in his own song "Midnight in a Perfect World," which featured on his 1996 album Endtroducing. Closer to home Pohjola's involvement with local fusion-progressive band XL Finland even brought him out of retirement to play bass in concert with them in 2004. He spent the whole evening almost hidden behind musicians half his age, playing the same role as 35 years earlier, unflinchingly anchoring the music with his feather light bass.

Pohjola's name is carried forward by two sons who have also gone into making music—Verneri (trumpet) and Ilari (trombone) are both prominent Finnish jazz musicians, playing alongside their father at the 2004 Pori Jazz Festival. The memorial concert in Helsinki in January 2009 featured local musicians whose age difference sometimes exceeded 50 years, but whose unified respect Pohjola will remain for many years to come.

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