Verneri Pohjola of Finland is a well-kept secret in the United States, but he is one of the most creative trumpet players in jazz. At the We Jazz festival in December 2018, his concert was memorable: For 40 minutes, at a movie theater in Helsinki, he improvised a soundtrack to a film, Animal Image. The film contained vast seascapes of devastating loneliness and landscapes empty except for occasional animals. Pohjola responded with trumpet lines of merciless austerity. It was like a depopulated version of Miles Davis’ improvised score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.
Compared to that night in Helsinki, The Dead Don’t Dream at first sounds tame. But continued listening reveals that Pohjola is the same adventurer. He creates free designs in space rather than movements through time. Forms are left open and resolutions are transitory. The pianist in this superb Finnish quartet, Tuomo Prättälä, does not comp. Instead he arrays points of light from piano or electronics in an atmosphere that is separate from Pohjola until it surrounds him.
The reason that this extremely modern music is accessible is that Pohjola is first a communicator. His brassy, clarion trumpet sound sits you straight up in your chair. While he plays ideas you haven’t heard before, and while his thoughts don’t connect as you anticipate, his journey, sometimes gradually (“Argirro”), sometimes quickly (“Wilder Brother”), always arrives at lyrical epiphanies.
Probably the single best place to discover Pohjola’s unique heartfelt intellectual magic is the title track here. Prättälä’s solemn chords introduce darkness, but then Pohjola plays a simple haunting melody that begins to illuminate that darkness as he comes upon new songs within the song. Pohjola has said that his music is “about embracing life in all of its complex emotions, while we still have it. After all, the dead don’t dream.”