Verneri Pohjola: Pekka
Finnish jazz trumpeter Verneri Pohjola memorializes his father in memorable manner on this superbly realized sixty-five-minute collection. A revered bassist and composer who rose to fame in the ‘70s with the Finnish prog group Wigwam as well as his own outfits, Pekka Pohjola died in 2008 at only fifty-six. On this self-produced follow-up to his 2015 album Bullhorn, Verneri presents Pekka's music in a strikingly original form, and the release, not surprisingly, has been highly anticipated (in Finland especially), given the statures achieved by both father and son in their homeland.
Pekka is a significant artistic accomplishment for the trumpeter, but it's also one that resonates with deep personal meaning. As years of touring and recording kept him away from home, his father had only intermittent contact with the young Verneri and his brother Ilmari; consequently, though the two admired him for his musical accomplishments, he couldn't help but seem a distant father. The very experience of recording Pekka, then, became for the trumpeter a crucial way to re-connect: it's one thing to grow up listening to the music created by another; it's another to perform it and claim it to some degree as one's own. Further to that, though there were personal favourites Verneri wanted to include on the album, he also was surprised to discover music by his father of which he'd previously been unaware.
One of the album's most appealing aspects is its merging of genres. Jazz and prog are present, of course, but elements of rock and pop also find their way into Pekka. Helping him realize this excellent homage is a superb outfit featuring Tuomo Prättälä (Fender rhodes), Teemu Viinikainen (electric guitar), Antti Lötjönen (bass), and Mika Kallio (drums). The typical arrangement sees the horn's clear timbres sympathetically supported by guitar and electric piano shadings and the solid anchor of Lötjönen's acoustic bass lines and Kallio's percussive colourations.
There are moments when the Finnish trumpeter's sound invites comparison to his Norwegian compadres Nils Petter Molvær and Arve Henriksen, though Pohjola individuates himself throughout with exuberant playing marked by poise and technical finesse; Viinikainen warrants mention too for playing that ranges deftly between heavy guitar riffing and lyrical expressions. As the dynamic solo the trumpeter delivers on “The Dragon of Kätkävaara” shows, Pohjola's got chops to burn, though Pekka is hardly a grandstanding vehicle. Solos emerge out of the fabric of the material, and the primary concern is always with the composition in play. While two of the seven settings push past the ten-minute mark, they're not blowing exercises but instead long-form compositions rich in dynamic contrasts and solo spotlights. Prog-like intricacy is sometimes evident in the compositional structures, yet the pieces aren't so complex they prevent the musicians from playing with the open-endedness characteristic of jazz.
With Lötjönen's acoustic bass animating the material hypnotically, “The Dragon of Kätkävaara” inaugurates the album with a performance that escalates from lilting seduction to aggressive blaze, a transition abetted by Viinikainen's textures. One of the album's more accessible tracks, “First Morning” is distinguished by an enticing melodic figure that's as much pop as prog, while Pohjola's playing on the texturally rich “Benjamin” is multi-tracked, a move that allows for unison playing and contrapuntal expressions. The trumpeter's ruminative side comes to the fore during “Inke and Me,” a ballad dedicated to his mother, whereas the reflective “Innocent Questions” affords Pohjola and Prättälä ample space for personal expression when the arrangement features trumpet and electric piano only.Apparently, the material on Pekka was drawn from albums spanning more than two decades, yet the musicians' inspired renderings of the compositions make them sound newly hatched. When his recording days eventually reach their end, I expect Pohjola will look back on the project as one of the most, if not the most, special of his career. He's certainly done his father proud.