Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 1-3, June 20-22, 2008
Herbie Hancock may have been playing at Confederation Park, and there's little doubt that it impacted the attendance at Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's opening performance of the Improv Series. The attendance may have been small, and there's no doubt Hancock's show was terrific, but those who were in the audience for Haarla's show with her quintet, playing material largely culled from her outstanding ECM debut as a leader, Northbound (2005), was an artistic triumph of stark beauty, but with some significant differences to the recording.
First, the only other member of the Northbound quintet present was fellow Finn, bassist Uffe Krokfors. Krokfors has been playing with Haarla since their days with her late husband, drummer Edward Vesala and, their ongoing musical relationship has expanded to include other recordings including the somber duet recording Heart of a Bird (Tum, 2003) and the quintet recording Penguin Beguine (Tum, 2005). The Norwegian contingent on Northboundsaxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick and drum legend Jon Christensenwere replaced by an all-Finnish line-up with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, saxophonist/flautist Kari Heinila and drummer Dri Reino Laine, but within the first minutes of the opening "Yarra, Yarra..." it was clear that, while this quintet had its own approach, Haarla's writing and distinct harmonic approach were what gives any project a distinct identity.
Laine was as capable of Christensen when it came to broad swatches of color, and time implied more than explicit, but equally he swung at times, in ways that the Norwegian drummer seems to have abandoned. Krokfors' bass tone was visceral, and his control and technique remarkable. As a rhythm partner with Laine he was both empathic and suggestive, using pedal tones to create tension during solos from his band mates, but it was his solos that were amongst the highlights of the set. Capable of deep melodiousness, he used subtle extended techniques to draw out unexpected sounds. Krokfors first emerged in his early twenties with Vesala, and went on to become a member of Krakatou with Scorch Trio guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim, recording a number of discs for ECM. Here, however, in many ways he was at his best, with Haarla's writing allowing maximum flexibility within her often cued thematic passages.
Freedom comes in many forms, and it needn't be harsh or angular. While Pohjola in particular delivered a series of dazzling solos, with a remarkable embouchure that permitted him to radically change the timbre of his horn within a single phrase, sometimes even a single breath, Haarla's piano accompaniment was far from conventional. Jazz it is, but her harmonic conception is her own, steeped in ambiguity and implication and avoidant of any of the trappings of orthodoxy. Her classical training and the folk music of Finland inform her music and her playing as well. If Vesala's music was often aggressively turbulent, a maelstrom of whirling lines and colors, Haarla's is more gentle, but turbulent nevertheless. And with a more powerful rhythm section, the dynamics of the performance were even broader than those heard on Northbound.
Heinila was an intriguing saxophonist, capable of a sharp edge but often playing at a near-whisper. Haarla's composed lines for the saxophonist and Pohjola, whose interpretation sometimes blurred the lines between structure and nuanced exploration, intertwined in truly unique ways, often slow, almost languid but never weak. When he turned to flute at the opening of the second of two 45-minute sets for Northbound's opening, "Avian Kingdom," it brought a lighter texture to the piece than the original, which featured Trygve Seim on saxophone. The temporal elasticity and unpredictable hand-off of composed melody to improvisation made for a sound that was almost other-worldly or, at least, music that simply could not be created without the stark and sometimes somber beauty of the Finnish landscape.
Haarla, as a pianist, drew comparisons to Carla Bleynot in her style, which in its classically-informed, often unresolved harmonic ambiguity, bore no resemblance whatsoever, but in her minimalist approach that favored thoughtful suggestion over direct explication. Her solos were abstract, but always based in melodic development and construct.
Finding a good harp is, according to Haarla, a challenge in almost any city, but the Ottawa festival managed to find a beautiful instrument and, thanks to some innovative miking and the use of a double-bass pickup by the Fourth Stage's soundmen, the small Ottawa audience was able to hear an instrument as rare in jazz as Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon at the Connoisseur Series performance earlier in the day. From sustaining cascades to soft, gently plucked melodies, Haarla on harpespecially at one point, where she was in duet with Krokforscreated an evocative canvass that, along with performances of her quintet, left an impression that may have been experienced by few, but will no doubt be heard about by many.
Coming up on days 4-6 of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival: Renaud Garcia-Fons, Corkestra, Lee Konitz, Mimi Fox, Amir Amir Trio and Tim Berne/Lotte Anker/Chris Speed.