Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

February 22, 2011


Ambitious, innovative and superbly arranged and played with Pohjola dominating subtly throughout.

Verneri Pohjola


(ACT Music ACT 9027-2)

Verneri Pohjola is a Finnish trumpeter and composer, the latest in a long line of musicians bearing the Pohjola name. Pohjola was born in 1977, the son of bassist Pekka Pohjola, a legend of Finnish jazz and a player with an international reputation. Pekka died shortly after this album was recorded but was around long enough to appear on two of the album’s eight tracks contributing his customary electric bass. Pohjola’s younger brother Ilmari also features on trombone.

“Aurora” represents Pohjola’s début for ACT and he becomes the first Finnish musician to record as a leader for the label. Given ACT’s rich cultural links with Scandinavia it is perhaps surprising that this has not happened before. Pohjola was recommended to label boss Siggi Loch by long-standing ACT recording artist Nils Landgren and “Aurora” represents a very assured first album for the label.

Pohjola’s principal inspiration is Miles Davis, particularly the legendary “Birth Of The Cool” recordings from 1947. Pohjola takes the influences of Davis and Gil Evans and filters them through a uniquely Finnish perspective adding folk and classical elements to the Davis/Evans template. Pohjola uses a total of fifteen musicians on the recording and the result is an album of colourful, large ensemble jazz that is hugely impressive in its scope. Different combinations of musicians appear on different tracks and Pohjola has described the work as being “more like collection of short stories than a novel” but to this listener the music has a novel’s broad sweep and vaulting ambition. “Aurora” is a sometimes grandiose but always impressive piece of work and earned a rare five stars from John Fordham in his Guardian review.

In addition to the conventional jazz instrumentation Pohjola also utilises the Meta4 String Quartet alongside principal figures Juhani Aaltonen (flute), Pepa Paivinen (alto flute and bass clarinet) Ilmari Pohjola (trombone) and Aki Rissanen (piano). Three different bass and drum combinations are used and with the way the credits are structured it’s impossible to define exactly who’s doing what but there’s some excellent rhythm section work throughout the album.

The material consists of seven Pohjola originals plus an arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous “Concierto De Aranjuez Amour” which is quite obviously inspired by the Miles Davis/Gil Evans version on the famous “Sketches of Spain” album-but we’ll come to that later.

The album opens with the starkly beautiful and atmospheric “Akvavit” which initially features Pohjola’s vocalised trumpet in a richer, darker variation on Arve Henriksen’s approach. The atmosphere is enhanced by eerily tinkling percussion- the imaginative use of percussive effects is a constant throughout the record. As the piece progresses Pohjola adopts a more strident, open horn approach, the clarity of his tone clearly owing much to Miles Davis. There’s also a degree of electronica, generated presumably by Pohjola’s trumpet set up, and the track’s drummer continues to provide dramatic but sympathetic and intelligent accompaniment. There’s a kind of primal grandeur about this opening piece, an evocation of the darkness of Finland’s forests. 

At eleven and a half minutes plus “For Three” is the album’s centre piece. The title is something of a misnomer, this is emphatically not a trio item. From a percussive entry a nagging, folk inspired melody eventually emerges and meanders in and out of the piece. Pohjola’s horn and string voicings are exquisite as Aaltonen’s wispy flute combines with the buzz of Pavinen’s bass clarinet, underscored by piano and string quartet. Pohjola takes the first solo, his playing both strident and dramatic. This is followed by a more exploratory passage from pianist Rissanen before the memorable theme emerges once more. Both Pohjola and Rissanen work closely with the drummer/percussionist during their solos. The percussion work throughout the piece is outstanding, attention grabbing, powerful and dramatic yet totally attuned to everything going on around it. I suspect that there be more than one musician responsible for this extraordinary panoply of percussive sound, if so well done to all involved.

“Askisto” demonstrates Pohjola’s skill at writing for strings. The opening is scored for string quartet only, in a delicate blend of classical and folk influences. The strings are then supplemented by eerily tinkling celesta , before double bass and piano introduce a freer, jazzier, more improvised passage juxtaposed against the main theme stated by the strings. Pohjola himself doesn’t actually seem to play on this but it’s still a fascinating sonic exercise incorporating a broad sweep of sounds, styles, timbres and textures.

“Boxer Diesel” initially adopts a laid back groove, complete with electric keyboard sounds, that sees Pohjola veering vaguely in the direction of Nils Petter Molvaer or Palle Mikkelborg. However as the piece gathers momentum and Pohjola’s playing becomes more and more impassioned he quickly stamps his own authority on the proceedings. “Boxer Diesel” is eminently accessible and something of an audience favourite in live performance one suspects.

By way of total contrast “Spirit Of S” is exquisitely fragile and delicate . Pohjola teams himself with Aaltonen’s flute and Rissanen’s piano plus sympathetic bass and drums in this delightfully controlled performance. Aaltonen, A Scandinavian jazz veteran who has recorded with Edward Vesala, Arild Andersen and Tomasz Stanko is particularly impressive.

“Colossus” adopts a sunny, upbeat groove as the backdrop for Pohjola’s fluttering trumpet improvisations. An almost funky bass undertow and busy, exotic percussion fuel the leader’s increasingly fiery solo and Rissanen’s percussive piano work out.

Pohjola’s version of Rodrigo’s “Concerto De Aranjuez” stays close to the spirit of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The first half is a lovely duet for trumpet and double bass with incidental percussion before Rissanen’s piano closes things out.

“At The End Of The Album” builds in layers from a simple but anthemic electric keyboard melody and basic drum machine accompaniment to incorporate trumpet, trombone and subliminal voices. It seems to go for the big wide-screen finish before fading away to finish as simply as it began. It’s a typically idiosyncratic ending to a highly individualistic album.

“Aurora” was initially released on the Finnish Texicalli label before being adopted by ACT. The distribution might of the latter should help Pohjola become a force to be reckoned with on the international jazz scene. The album already appears to have made a big impression on the critics and rightly so. It’s ambitious, innovative and superbly arranged and played with Pohjola dominating subtly throughout. Pohjola covers an impressive range of bases and the album is consistently involving with his sidemen more than doing the music justice. Could Finland become the new Norway?

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