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The importance of artistic freedom

by Merja Hottinen

“Without an artist grant, I would not be able to work as intensely as I do. I am very grateful for the existence of this system and for being admitted into it. This has enabled me to do my own thing, and I am trying to use my time as well as I possibly can,” says trumpet player Verneri Pohjola, who released his new album this spring.

Superlatives abound in reviews in Finland and abroad of the Verneri Pohjola Quartet album Bullhorn, issued this spring. It is quartet’s third album and marks his debut on the Edition Records label in the UK. Bullhorn is hailed as a combination of the melodic vein displayed on Pohjola’s previous albums with a creative edge and energy, and the seamless combined musicianship of the quartet has also been praised.

All the hallmarks of a big success are there, and Verneri Pohjola freely admits that he is very pleased with his work just now: “Bullhorn is something that I can honestly be really proud of. I can recommend it to anyone without reservation and without apology.”

He is also pleased with his new band: pianist Aki Rissanen, bass player Antti Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen. “I’ve enjoyed playing with the new band. My own music-making is flying free again,” says Pohjola happily.

The ideal mix of work

A jazz musician’s calendar is a roller-coaster ride. There are gig clusters, recording session periods, writing periods and commissions. Performance fees make up the majority of the income but are uneven and unequally spaced. Pohjola commends the three-year government artist grant that allowed him to focus on the recent recording project, commissions and other projects during the gaps in his gig calendar.

Now, after the release of Bullhorn, the calendar looks full – full enough, that is. “I have enough gigs, but not too many. I could do with more in terms of making money, but with a four-year-old son it’s a good idea not to be away from home too much,” says Pohjola.

Contrary to popular belief, his performance fees have not gone up with increasing success.

Copyright royalties also appear to have taken a nose-dive rather than the contrary. And then there are the recordings, which rarely pay out for the performers. Although projects may receive subsidies, a record label will be lucky to break even with releasing an album. Still, Pohjola remains hopeful about the commercial success of his new album. “Bullhorn is my first album that I could imagine breaking even and even making some money,” he says.

Financial problems notwithstanding, recordings are important, because they show that you are a serious artist. “It’s much more difficult to get featured in a magazine or booked for a gig if you don’t have a recording out there,” says Pohjola. “And it’s important for me as an artist too, of course. It’s one of the art forms I really love.”

Pohjola has made some extra money through commissions. In the spring, he wrote a piece entitled 1966 for the Pori Jazz Festival, and his current projects include a work for trumpet, cello, drums and orchestra commissioned by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra.

A band of friends

The Finnish jazz scene is tiny – which Pohjola notes can be a good thing – and the members of the Verneri Pohjola Quartet have been friends for a long time. But what is important about this project is not the friendship but the shared musical ambition.

The quartet members play variously together in other ensembles too, and although this one is fronted by Pohjola, in other contexts the focus may differ. Bass player Antti Lötjönen and Pohjola play in the Ilmiliekki Quartet and in the Antti Lötjönen Quartet East, while pianist Aki Rissanen and Pohjola form a duo for which a recording is also planned.

Drummer Teppo Mäkynen, the newest addition to the quartet, demonstrates how far Pohjola feels he has come in his career: “Teppo is one of the musicians whom I’ve admired since I was a boy. He was already a full-blown professional when I was just a beginner. Now I have my hero in my band. The fact that I can go up to a musician of that calibre and casually ask him whether he’d like to play in my band shows that I’ve arrived.”

Pohjola says that the quartet’s performance fees are divided up equally between them, and the band also receives part of the arranging royalties.  While Pohjola admits to putting more work into the band than anyone else, he still thinks this is fair: “It helps build my career.”

In it for the long run

Although everything is fine just now, Pohjola is aware that the future will not always work out the way you like. Social security and pension matters are by no means self-evident for musicians. “A musician’s pension is a complicated thing. We have no retirement age. Juhani Aaltonen is in his eighties, and he still goes around festivals like the rest of us. The career structure is different.”

A long-term approach is a key concept in planning for the future, anticipating various possible situations. “That makes it all meaningful. You have to challenge yourself at times and then take it easier at other times,” says Pohjola.

“It’s terribly difficult to think about artistic content and making a living at the same time. They’re two completely different subjects,” says Pohjola. He feels that the main thing would be for artists to be free to work with their art as they best see fit. “Nothing is more important than being able to do your own thing. If the content is something that I can wholeheartedly acknowledge, something about which I feel that this is what I am living for – then I can accept the other challenges that this choice of profession entails.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Aga Tomaszek