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Verneri Pohjola Quartet

Ancient History


by Ian Mann

April 11, 2012


A warm, tightly focussed album that is less epic in scope than its predecessor but one which is ultimately equally rewarding and which represents a valid artistic statement in its own right.

Verneri Pohjola Quartet

“Ancient History”

(ACT Music & Vision ACT 9517-2)

The young trumpeter and composer Verneri Pohjola became the first Finnish jazz musician to sign for ACT and his ambitious large ensemble album “Aurora”, his début for the label, was acclaimed as one of the outstanding releases of 2011 (see review elsewhere on this site). “Aurora” was inspired by the sound of Miles Davis and Gil Evans but the music was given a uniquely European, and indeed Finnish, flavour by the remarkably assured writing and playing of Pohjola and his associates.

If “Aurora” represented something of the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach Pohjola has decided to take something of a step back on “Ancient History” by focussing on the nuances and intimacies to be discovered within a pared down quartet format. Joining the trumpeter this time round are pianist Aki Rissanen, who made such a big impression on the previous album, plus the bass and drum pairing of Antti Lotjonen and Joonas Riippa, both of whom also appeared on “Aurora”. This is essentially Pohjola’s working group and the players are among his oldest musical associates. Guest appearances are strictly rationed this time round with Tatu Ronkko providing additional percussion on three pieces and Jukka Perko adding alto saxophone to another. The sound is of necessity more intimate than on the sprawling “Aurora” but as Pohjola points out he has been playing with these musicians for ten years and “we know each other inside out”. The result is a warm, tightly focussed album that is less epic in scope than its predecessor but which is ultimately equally rewarding. “Ancient History” merely reveals another side of Pohjola’s talent and represents an equally valid musical statement. 

Despite the intimacy of the setting Pohjola and his group achieve an admirably wide emotional and dynamic range over the course of seven original compositions plus a remarkable cover of Bjork’s “Hyperballad”. The album commences with the slowly unfolding “Deism”, an eleven minute composition that begins in a hymnal, almost classically “Nordic” manner before expanding into something more fulsome but without ever losing the essential mood of the piece. Pohjola’s pure tone owes a substantial debt to Miles Davis, there’s the same sense of making every note count and of making use of the space within the music. The trumpeter wrings every ounce of emotion out of his horn but he’s also a great technician, constantly varying his intonation and deploying a variety of techniques throughout the album. But for all his chops Pohjola is not a flashy player, as he explains in his liner notes this record is all about producing “a personal and versatile sound” and “bringing out the soul of each tune”. As “Deism” proves he has the ideal collaborators to achieve precisely these ends. Rissanen’s lyrical contribution adds much to the opening item’s often dolorous tones as does Riippa’s understated but quietly dramatic drumming. “Deism” is a stark, but very beautiful way to begin an album.

Following the distilled sounds of the opener Pohjola’s self confessed aim of versatility is encapsulated in the more upbeat “But This One Goes In Four” with its breathy trumpet and skittering hip hop inspired grooves. Despite his acknowledged debt to Davis there’s also something of the influence of more contemporary players in Pohjola’s sound such as the Norwegians Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen and perhaps the latest young American trumpet sensation, Ambrose Akinmusire. Pohjola differs from his Norwegian contemporaries by retaining a purely acoustic sound unadorned by the use of electronics. “But This One…” is also distinguished by the joyous, percussive soloing of the excellent Rissanen and the responsive, colourful drum work of Riippa. The piece covers a lot of ground during the course of its nine minutes and grips the attention throughout.

The title track is a majestic ballad dominated by the hugeness and clarity of Pohjola’s tone and enhanced by the drama and detail of Riippa’s drumming. Rissanen’s delicately probing piano provides the necessary counterpoint to a virtuoso but highly eloquent trumpet performance.

Bjork, like Radiohead, is a much covered artist by contemporary jazz musicians. This stunning version of her “Hyperballad” centres around Riippa’s broken, almost industrial beats and guest Tatu Ronkko’s colourful percussion, the sounds inspired directly by the disturbing imagery of Bjork’s lyrics. Pohjola’s sound is breathy, full of smears and half valves, interacting well with the percussionists, before he adopts a purer tone for a soaring final statement of the melody. There’s also an almost subliminal drone although I wouldn’t like to guess at its source, maybe arco bass, maybe electronica. Whatever its provenance it is suitably effective   The piece fades out with the sound of percussion, plucked bass and strummed piano strings.

“White View” is an unhurried extended feature for the gentle pianism of Rissanen, slowly unfolding and punctuated by pithy theme statements from Pohjola plus drums and percussion. Much of the piece is in fact a solo piano performance, one concerned primarily with lyricism and mood building.

“Cheap Taxi Adventure” is inspired by an eventful journey in a Shanghai cab with “an impatient, aggressive and in the end truly crazed driver”. Fuelled by Lotjonen’s propulsive bass pulse the atmosphere of urban edginess is depicted by Pohjola’s feverish trumpeting and the stabbing of Rissanen’s electric piano. Guest alto saxophonist Jukka Perko doubles up with Pohjola much of the time but also contributes a powerful solo of his own above the rolling rhythms of Riippa’s drums and Rissanen’s earthy, funky Fender Rhodes. 

As the title suggests “Thunderous Thoughts” maintains the energy levels with the leader’s often strident trumpet powered by Riippa’s kinetic, ever evolving drumming. Rissanen’s urgent, percussive solo reveals another side of his musical personality (there’s a joyous shout of approval in there somewhere). The energy of this performance suggests that the piece is destined to be something of a live favourite.

After the sound and fury of the previous two items the album closes on an elegiac note with the dramatic “Ballad 18”. The composer’s trumpet builds from a whisper to full on magnificence against a backdrop of rumbling drums, cymbal shimmers and exotic percussion (Ronkko again) before falling away again for the delicate coda.

In its own way “Ancient History” maintains the lofty standards set by its predecessor and although some commentators have expressed mild disappointment the record should do much to consolidate Pohjola’s progress as both composer and performer. Immaculately recorded in a series of Helsinki studios “Ancient History” shows Pohjola moving away from the influence of Miles Davis to create a more personal sound that promises much for the future. This is very much the trumpeter’s record although the contribution of his colleagues shouldn’t be underestimated.

In terms of live appearances it’s obvious that a regular quartet represents a far more viable economic unit than a large ensemble. I’d like to think that it’s a possibility that the unit deployed on this album might be a suitable candidate for a London Jazz Festival appearance this November. Here’s hoping- I’d love to see this guy play live.               

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