by Ian Mann
June 21, 2017
A hugely impressive musical work and one that is highly recommended.
(Edition Records EDN 1092)
“Pekka” is the second album for Edition Records by the Finnish trumpeter and composer Verneri Pohjola and follows his acclaimed 2015 quartet recording “Bullhorn”.
Prior to his move to Edition Pohjola had impressed the international jazz audience with two excellent albums for the Munich based ACT label. The first of these, “Aurora”, was an ambitious large ensemble recording initially released on a small Finnish independent label before being picked up on by ACT. It garnered rave reviews, not least from myself, and from John Fordham writing for The Guardian. The follow up ,“Ancient History” (2012), featured the trumpeter in a more pared down setting with his then quartet.
“Pekka” represents a significant change of direction for Pohjola. His previous releases have focussed on his own original material but this latest recording finds the trumpeter reinterpreting, and putting his own stamp on, the music of his late father, Finnish bass legend Pekka Pohjola.
Pekka Pohjola came to international attention as a seventeen year old as a member of the Finnish prog rock group Wigwam, a band with a worldwide cult following. Pekka’s virtuoso electric bass playing was a key component of the Wigwam sound and it’s probably not too fanciful to think of him as a “European Jaco Pastorius”.
In the UK Wigwam’s albums were released by the then fledgling Virgin record label and Pekka stayed with the company even after leaving Wigwam to pursue a solo career. He subsequently issued two solo albums on Virgin, “ B The Magpie” (1974) and “The Mathematician’s Air Display” (1977).
Despite being of the right vintage and having cut my musical teeth on prog rock I have to confess that I don’t really remember Wigwam who didn’t make such a big impression in the UK as other European prog rockers such as Focus or the numerous ‘Krautrock’ bands. However I do still have an ancient cassette recording of “The Mathematician’s Air Display” which I dug out and played prior to writing this review. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it has aged remarkably well, something helped by the fact that it’s primarily instrumental so there are no embarrassingly dated lyrics to deal with. Pekka wrote all the material and plays both bass and keyboards and the personnel includes Virgin label mates Mike Oldfield on guitar and Gong drummer, the late Pierre Moerlen. Pekka subsequently worked with Oldfield’s touring band following the unexpected runaway success of “Tubular Bells”. Aside from the occasional Wakeman-esque excess “Air Display” features some interesting writing and superb playing, the majority of which still stands up admirably forty years on.
Strongly influenced by Frank Zappa Pekka was a versatile and prolific composer and continued to be highly productive throughout the 80s and 90s, his output exploring jazz and classical composition as well as rock. Although he rather dropped off the radar in Britain he retained a huge following in his native Finland and is still revered in his homeland to this day, second only in the affections of the Finnish people to national composer Jean Sibelius.
For all his talent Pekka led a troubled life haunted by mental health issues and alcohol addiction. He died in 2008 aged just fifty six, the parallels with the similarly troubled Pastorius are all too poignant and obvious. Verneri Pohjola talks frankly about his father’s problems in an interview with Selwyn Harris in the July 2017 edition of Jazzwise magazine saying “he was so clearly bi-polar, like a text book case”. Verneri goes on to regret that Pekka wasn’t offered more help with his condition, having grown up in an era with less understanding and tolerance of mental illness.
The choice to perform his father’s music must have represented a difficult decision for Pohjola. As his lengthy album liner notes make clear theirs was never a conventional father-son relationship. Verneri’s parents divorced when he was two and Verneri and his brother Ilmari, now the trombonist with Edition label mates Oddarrang, were raised by their mother Inkeri Pohjola. With Pekka frequently absent on tour he only had very intermittent contact with his sons. “I don’t really think of Pekka as my father” Verneri explains “I wasn’t raised by him”.
Verneri also addresses the subject of growing up in his father’s shadow stating; “He was a legend, at least in Finland. As a young musician I was regarded as Pekka Pohjola’s son. It only added to this pressure to succeed in my own right. It would have been easy to ride on his success but I definitely didn’t want to do that. I still don’t”.
In addition to the family dynamics Verneri also admits to finding it difficult to engage with his father’s densely written music saying “he had a crystal clear vision, a ‘one truth’ of how his tunes should be and he never made any changes to them”.
The younger Pohjola has always favoured a more open, improvisatory approach, something emphasised by his recordings for ACT and Edition, particularly his small group work. “My approach is different” he explains “I don’t see one truth in music. I emphasise freedom among the players and believe everyone should bring something of themselves to the music. There’s always a new version out there waiting to be discovered, that will reveal new sides of a composition”. Verneri applies his methods to Pekka’s music throughout the new album to consistently impressive effect.
Although Pohjola toured briefly with Pekka’s band when still a teenager and Verneri and Ilmari played alongside their father at the 2004 Pori Jazz Festival it wasn’t until 2016 that Verneri finally committed himself to playing his father’s music when he accepted an invitation from saxophonist and promoter Jukka Perko to perform a set of Pekka’s tunes at that year’s Vaipori Jazz Festival.
For this project Pohjola set about forming a new band with only bassist Antti Lotjonen remaining from the acoustic quartet that recorded “Bullhorn”. Pohjola’s trumpet influences may include Randy Brecker, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Tomasz Stanko , Kenny Wheeler and particularly the Norwegian Per Jorgensen but it’s the sound of electric era Miles Davis that offered him a way into his father’s music. The band on Pekka the album is an electric quintet featuring Pohjola and Lotjonen alongside Tuomo Prattala on Fender Rhodes, Teemu Viinikainen on guitar and the vastly experienced Mika Kallio at the drums. “Each of them brings something special to the table” says Pohjola “and right from the first rehearsal I knew we had something special together”.
The album features seven Pekka Pohjola compositions that span the decades, but unfortunately nothing is included from “The Mathematician’s Air Display”, which makes any direct comparison between father and son impossible, at least for me.
“I decided to treat the music the way I always do” states Pohjola “to respect the core and soul, but also not afraid to change anything or everything to make it sound my own”.
And the album does represent an extremely personal statement. Pohjola and his band perform with intensity, power and passion as exemplified by the opening “The Dragon of Katkavaara”, a favourite Pekka composition for many listeners. Alternately spacey / dirty Rhodes sounds and edgy, glitchy electronic percussion set the template as Pohjola’s majestic Miles-ian trumpet climbs from a whisper to a scream aided by Viinikainen’s crunching guitar dissonances. Having reached a cathartic peak the music fades away gently with the sound of spooky Rhodes and the Geiger counter-like clicks of percussion. Pohjola acknowledges the influence of “Bitches Brew” on the arrangements for this album and describes his quintet as “the perfect mix of progressive rock and jazz”.
“First Morning”, from “B The Magpie” begins with a beguiling fanfare of trumpet and guitar together with the shimmer of cymbals, it’s a dramatic and evocative musical description of the glory of the sunrise. The main melodic theme carries echoes of that of the Focus hit “Sylvia” and some of the classical/medieval motifs are reminiscent of the prog rock heyday. But Pohjola is soon putting his own mark on his father’s music with an extended trumpet solo that combines power with fluency and elegance. The gentle shimmer of Prattala’s Rhodes offers dynamic and stylistic contrast as he solos in more leisurely fashion accompanied by Lotjonen’s fluid bass and Kallio’s nimble, neatly detailed cymbal work. Viinikainen’s guitar solo combines a pureness of tone with a liquid agility as he gracefully navigates some slippery melodic lines. The piece resolves itself with the eventual return of Pekka’s catchy melodic theme.
Unaccompanied trumpet introduces the ballad “Inke and Me” with Lotjonen’s melodic acoustic bass and Kallio’s subtly nuanced percussion also adding to the fragile beauty of the piece. Prattala’s Rhodes is a reminder of the music’s prog roots and Viinikainen’s guitar provides extra colour and texture as the music gradually acquires an anthemic quality. I assume from the title that the piece was originally a dedication to Pohjola’s mother.
The exuberant “Pinch” is played at a furious pace with Pohjola’s fiery trumpet teamed with the varied keyboard sounds generated by Prattala. There’s a comparative pause for breath with Lotjonen’s acoustic bass solo before Viinikainen’s lithe guitar solo increases the energy levels once more. The piece concludes with a dizzying and dazzling collective restatement of the tricky but infectious theme, followed by a playfully dissonant climax.
Also from “B The Magpie” “Madness Subsides” begins in epic prog rock fashion with the grandiose ringing of gongs and the rumble of tympanis. The whisper of Pohjola’s trumpet emerges from this musical darkness followed by the plangent ring of Viinikainen’s guitar. Lotjonen’s double bass solo introduces an element of calm albeit with the eerie background shimmers of keyboards and percussion adding a slightly sinister air to the proceedings. Out of this erupts the chiming guitar of Viinikainen which briefly takes flight before a more impressionistic passage featuring keyboards and electronic percussion as vintage prog rubs shoulders with contemporary electronica. Only now does Pohjola’s trumpet emerge to float above the miasma of sound-washes and programmed beats.
Interestingly the original guitar riff from this tune was sampled by DJ shadow on the 1996 hit “Endtroducing”.
The enchanting “Benjamin” is another good example of Pekka’s way with a ballad. Here Verneri double tracks himself on trumpet to gently tiptoe through the gentle, minimalist style backdrop generated by keyboards, bass and percussion. There’s a modest gathering of pace mid tune leading to tasteful cameos from Viinikainen and Prattala prior to an anthemic final statement from Pohjola.
The album concludes with “Innocent Questions”, which comprises of an intimate, beautifully controlled and effortlessly elegant duet between Prattala and Pohjola. This piece, together with “Benjamin” and “Inke and Me” suggests that as far as the Miles Davis influence goes “In A Silent Way” has been as much of an inspiration as “Bitches Brew”.
But the real inspiration has been Pekka Pohjola. The quality and variety of his writing is apparent throughout the album and Verneri’s reimagining of his father’s material should help to bring the music of Pohjola Sr. to an international jazz audience.
The album will also enhance Verneri’s own, already impressive reputation. It’s an album that has been widely anticipated in Finland for many years and will surely sell in shed-loads at home but the quality of Pekka’s writing and the assured adventurousness of the performances by Verneri and his colleagues should help to ensure that it is a global success too.
This is a record that will raise the profiles of both father and son. I’ve been charting Verneri’s progress since 2011 and the release of “Aurora” but this is an album that is likely to steer me in the direction of Pekka’s voluminous back catalogue. Discovery is good, sometimes re-discovery can be even better.
With that in mind perhaps I should leave the last word to Verneri Pohjola;
“I really feel that I have become closer to him through his music. I also feel that Pekka’s music has come alive for me for the first time. I feel more connected to him now. His music might actually be the only thing I can really respect in him – tragic as that might sound. In my opinion our versions and the changes we’ve made illustrate clearly the core of Pekka’s music, and yet we’ve still managed to create something of our own, something very personal. It has been an emotional but empowering journey in Pekka’s music’s honour”.
It’s not quite the ‘Hollywood ending’ some might have anticipated but regardless of the family machinations behind it “Pekka” the album is still a hugely impressive musical work and one that is highly recommended.
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