2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
Following an entertaining Midgårds Jazz Festival evening that featured local students with mixed results, Umeå 2012 got off to a particularly strong start with a commissioned piece from Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla. Written for symphony orchestra and the quintet which has released two marvelous recordings on ECM-2005's Northbound and 2011's Vesper-what distinguished it from other symphonic collaborations was its remarkable integration. This was not a case of alternating passages for orchestra and quintet, though there were plenty of feature spots for Haarla's group, including original members, Finnish bassist Ufe Krokfors band Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim (himself a successful leader on ECM since 2001), alongside newcomers, Norwegian trumpeter Hayden Powell and Finnish drummer Mikko Kallio, replacing founding members Mathias Eick and Jon Christensen, respectively.
Instead, this 70-minute suite, intended to reflect on that quiet time of day between moonset and sunrise, traversed a great range of imagery and emotion. Haarla's contributions to ex-husband Edward Vesala's Sound and Fury have been documented plenty, but it bears reiterating how influential she was on the late Finnish drummer when she joined the group for Lumi (ECM, 1986). That her compositional contributions to Vesala's music went uncredited at the time was, in retrospect, absolutely unforgivable, but the great news is that in the years since Vesala's death in 1999, her work has become more visible, both through her ECM recordings and in contexts like the 2010 Tampere Jazz Happening, where a reunited Sound and Fury group performed a set subtitled "The Music of Iro Haarla."
Haarla's ability to create floating stases with turbulent underpinnings reflected a similar approach to her days with Vesala, but now clearly attributable to the pianist/harpist, who played with great care and concentration, creating tension-filled ambiguities for her group and in this case, the NorrlandsOperans Symfoniorkester, conducted by Jukka Iisakkila. But even when a sense of controlled chaos reigned-made all the more dramatic for having the palette of a large orchestra at her disposal-Haarla's irrepressible lyricism remained fundamental throughout.
Seim was, as ever, a marvel of patient melodic development, his unique ability to bend notes (stemming from studies of ethnic instruments in the Middle East) turning one particular a cappella moment, early in the performance, into a highlight all the more powerful for its understatement and restraint. Powell, a mid-twenties trumpeter who has been garnering increasing attention, changed the complexion of Haarla's quintet considerably with a more burnished, brassy tone that contrasted with Eick's softer, more breathy embouchure. Together with Seim, he created a more powerful and, at times, piercing presence, as capable of strong thematic ideation as he was more outré concerns.
Krokfors first gained attention in the late '80s/early '90s Finnish group Krakatau, which also included intrepid guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim and released two fine albums for ECM, Volition (1992) and Matinale (1994). Since that time, Krokfors has developed considerably as a bassist. His Umeå performance-as an accompanist, but particularly as a soloist, where he demonstrated a deep, robust tone, rare dexterity and, like his band mates, a concise sense of focus- was even more impressive than his 2010 Tampere Jazz Happening set, playing (along with Haarla) in Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen's fine quartet.
Like Powell, Kallio may not be well-known outside his country, though his performance with saxophonist Markus Hollko at Tampere Jazz Happening 2010 was certainly notable, and hopefully the exposure of working with Haarla will achieve greater international attention for both players. Kallio's ability to combine Christensen-like textural free play with a more definitive temporal sense when required, made him an ideal fit for the group, and one which will undoubtedly continue to change its complexion over time.
Haarla's writing moved from maelstrom-like turbulence to deeper melancholy and, ultimately, that gentle silence-approaching beauty which evokes so much promise at the start of each and every day. Whether it was more dramatic turns with the full orchestra or breakdowns into smaller subsets-such as a late-set trio with Krokfors, Seim and, on harp, Haarla-it was an evocative and provocative performance. The good news is that it was recorded, along with sessions over the next two days (in the same room, but without an audience). As it turned out, according to Seim later in the week, the majority of the best recordings came from the live show-no surprise, given the rapt audience's enthusiastic energy and response-so hopefully there will be a release of this project sometime soon.