During the 1980s and '90s, Iro Haarla was content to keep away from the limelight and act as the generally unacknowledged inner architect of the music of her husband, drummer Edward Vesala, and his Sound & Fury group. Haarla met Vesala shortly after leaving Helsinki's Sibelius Academy in 1978, and until his death in 1999 she channeled her own musical talents into bringing shape and structure to her husband's brilliant but largely intuitive ideas.
Haarla made telling performance contributions to four Sound & Fury ECM albumsOde To The Death Of Jazz, Invisible Storm, Nordic Gallery, and the band's masterpiece, Lumiand was by all accounts a vital composing and arranging partner in all her husband's projects.
But if Haarla's ECM debut as a leader has been a long time coming, it's a deep and rewarding one, performed by a wonderfully compatible quintet whose members are rich in history among themselves and with Sound & Fury. Jon Christensen has the tough job of settling into the drum seat but, freewheeling creative giant that he is, he does so with complete assurance.
Trygve Seim first played with Haarla and Vesala in 1996 and was developing a new quartet with the duo in 1999. His vivid, painterly contributions, favouring long, lyrical brushstrokes over rapid-fire pyrotechnics (altogether more Vermeer than Jackson Pollock), are things of beauty and joy and are central to the success of Northbound. Haarla similarly prefers to dig deep and anthemically rather than accelerate to speed, focusing on the piano and using the harp (which she sometimes plays in traditional cascading style and sometimes as though it were a koto) mainly for colour.
The prodigiously talented Mathias Eick, who first played with Seim in 1993 at just twelve years of age, and Uffe Krokfors, a muscular and forceful bassist with a deliciously weird harmonic touch and inventive mastery of arco style, worked on Sound & Fury's Ode To The Death Of Jazz in 1989. Both are heard to savage advantage on "Time For Recollection."
The circle may be broken, but some of the links remain, and this family of musicians starts out from an easy intimacy with Haarla's music. Not surprisingly, a feeling of loss runs through the album, but Haarla is a searching and emotionally mature composer and arranger, and the music is never mawkish, communicating instead a strong sense of life and positivism. "With Thanksgiving" is the apogee of this balance: it seems to be quietly mourning what was, while looking forward to what may be. The arrangements continue Haarla/Vesala's concern with through-composition, while also incorporating a greater degree of improvisation than Sound & Fury allowed.
Lovely, articulate, river-deep music and, it is to be hoped, a harbinger of more Haarla-led projects to come.
Personnel: Iro Haarla: piano, harp; Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Mathias Eick: trumpet; Uffe Krokfors: double-bass; Jon Christensen: drums.