Kimmo Pohjonen: A Very Cool Instrument
Certain instruments have yet to place themselves beyond how the public and most musicians perceive them, but that hasn't stopped some musicians from distinguishing themselves by taking a different path with them. As Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar, so is Finnish musician Kimmo Pohjonen to the accordion: a conceptualist and master improviser who has boldly taken his instrument beyond what has previously been thought possible.
The use of electronics in any genre is potentially the most exciting development for the music in decades. It has given musiciansjazz, improvising or otherwisea new set of tools to mold and shape sound, and they are using them to re-contextualize their music within a nervous and evasive 21st century. With the use of electronics, Pohjonen has turned his five-row chromatic accordion into a mean machine.
A fearless musical adventurer, Pohjonen is a man of many projects, and most of them coexist simultaneously. Many of those projects reside only in live settings and surpass his recorded output. Between 1999 and 2013, Pohjonen has been involved in several different projects with diverse concepts and collaborators, from collaborating with the renowned Kronos Quartet on Uniko (Ondine, 2011) and his KTU trio, with King Crimson alum, drummer Pat Mastelotto and Warr guitarist Trey Gunn, to his project with Finnish farmers, Earth Machine Music, Kluster (Westpark, 2002), with right-hand man, sampling expert Samuli Kosminen and Murhaballadeja / Murder Ballads (SiBa, 2012), with singer Heikki Laitinen. These established him as one of Europe's most talented accordionists, improvisers and composers. His delicate relationship to the accordion is like basketball player LeBron James' relationship to a 10-foot-high basket: amazing things happen.
All of this was interestingly portrayed in a recent documentary by Finnish Director Kimmo Koskela, Soundbreaker, which traces the 35-year career of this unique artist and musical pirate.
All About Jazz: How did Soundbreaker come about?
Kimmo Pohjonen: It was a German producer who contacted Finnish director Kimmo Koskela, a while ago, to make a film documentary about me. I knew Koskela from a film project before and he asked my opinion; I replied that I was not interested in a documentary about me. At the time I was 39 years old and I told him that documentaries consisted of talking heads and most of the documentaries deal with old or dead people. I didn't see any reason for making a documentary about me. Then he began persuading me and we had many meetings, where he asked me what I would like to do. I said that I would be interested in some sort of a music movie or feature film. We started the script but we never got funding. But we began shooting and, in the end, I agreed to make a documentary. At last we had something for funders. That is in short how we ended doing the documentary.
AAJ: The film portrays that in the beginning you had difficulties with accepting the accordion. Can you talk about your relationship with this instrument?
KP: It's really different now. I started playing in the '70s, when I lived in the countryside. In the village, only the adults were playing accordion and it was music for grownups. Nobody from my generation played accordion. I got it from my father and I played in a local group consisting of older people. I played folk tunes and it was kind of nice, but very uncool. I didn't dare tell my friends that I played accordion because it was so uncool. At the time, I was more interested in sports and hanging out with friends so, in a way, it was a compulsory thing; I was pleasing my father.
But somehow I continued, and at the age of 15, 16, I thought that I could be a musician and I moved to Helsinki, where I began studying classical music. At that time, I saw myself as a performer playing classical music. Later, I got back to folk music when they had folk music department at Sibelius Academy, and the whole time during my studies, my relationship with the instrument was a bit strange. I didn't feel I was myself when I studied classical or folk music. I began playing harmonica, bandoneon, and various other instruments. I even gave up the accordion because I couldn't feel the instrument.
Later, at the end of my studies in the late '90s, somebody asked me to do a solo concert and prior to that I had studied African thumb piano, bandoneon and pump organ. But then I realized that my main instrument was the accordion, which I had been playing since I was 10 years old. I had to find out what would please me. Then I started to dabble with electronic effects, microphones, effects and loops, and that was a huge moment for mewhen I realized that I was standing in front of a soundworld where I could create anything through improvisation, without notes, without writing anything on paper.