The Finnish composer and drummer Edward Vesala once said, "If you want to make music, do it with 100% conviction or don't bother at all." As a musical setting, duets are a dangerous space: they can clearly show if a musician does not have 100% conviction, for they leave improvisers naked, both technically and emotionally. Such an intimate setting exposes a musician’s technique and ideas without the cover of a whole ensemble, as well as revealing the musician as a human being, full of personal and fragile emotions.
The pianist/Harpist Iro Haarla, Vesala’s widow and musical partner, shows no fear of such intimacy on two duet records she has recorded since his death in 1999. Yarra Yarra (November Music, 2001), with former Vesala alum Pepa Päivinen on reeds, pays explicit tribute to his memory - he suggested the two collaborate and it features many of his compositions. Heart of a Bird , released in 2003 on TUM Records , has Haarla dialoguing with another Vesala stalwart, the bassist Ulf Krokfors.
These duet albums succeed on two levels: the duos better express the quiet intensity of Vesala’s music than his large ensemble, Sound and Fury, sometimes could, and they shed light on how much Haarla, Päivinen and Krokfors influenced Vesala’s distinctive sound. The albums also illustrate how the three have developed Vesala’s sound, and perhaps even refined it by expressing his concepts in a stripped-down duo format.
Yarra Yarra broods mysteriously and abstractly, revealing shades of music from around the world. The title track gently unfolds like the extended opening exposition of Indian ragas. On “Winter Twilight,” Haarla’s harp and Pävinen’s ney flute evoke the mysterious probing of Arabic classical music.
In contrast, Heart of a Bird teems with lush, almost romantic themes, a collection of abstract, multi-faceted jazz ballads. Krokfors’ “Springlike Grove” channels the Jimmy Giuffre 3 as a short, dancing phrase climbs and descends over an angular pulse. Haarla’s ”Elephantine Memories” displays the powerful lyricism of Debussy and Mingus. After a high-register intro of double-stops and deep tones from Krokfors, Haarla paints with broad, colorful strokes, moving with twirling steps, quick bursts, lonely notes.
Vesala also had an all-encompassing musical vision. He tempered the free jazz multi-directional pulse into a quieter form of meditation by building towards brief moments of restrained intensity. A blast of heavy-metal guitar, a Tango melody on the accordion, a fragment of a piano chord or arpeggio, Ellington-like vocalizations from the horns moan together then dissipate - in his music, textures poke their way to the surface, then fall away into the depths.
However, Vesala’s concept was not always successful. A direct comparison can be made of the two versions that exist of Invisible Storm. On the ECM album of the same name, the constantly changing ensemble textures get schizophrenic at times, the tune gets top-heavy and the focus is lost. The arrangements often seem too controlled, too forced. On Yarra Yarra , Päivänen and Haarla strip the tune to its essentials, contrasting in quick succession heavy dissonance with lighter, more delicate passages. Haarla’s piano trembles, strikes and fades into silence, sometimes dominating and sometimes receding to let Päivinen flutter and hover through the extended melody.
Haarla actually had much to do with how Vesala music’s sounded, as she arranged much of his material, most notably on his Sound and Fury recordings for ECM. She makes Monkish use of space and has a composer’s economical use of notes, discreet with her dissonance. “Like the Sand of the Ocean” makes stunning use of silence. Päivänen and Haarla complete a passage, then rest for what seems like an eternity, then start off from a new point. Her comping on ”Longing”, from HoaB , moves between sparse phrases behind Krokfors prolific solo, and more expansive ground when counterpointing with Rasmus Korsström’s soprano sax.
Krokfors, Haarla and Päivinen utilize and extend the full capacities of their instruments. On “Forest Song” Krokfors’ masterful bass technique blends seamlessly rhythm and melody, evoking at times a darker, edgier, more mysterious Mingus. Haarla’s harp creates two disparate moods on Yarra Yarra ’s “Winter Twilight” and HoaB ’s “Lullaby for the Unborn.” On the latter she delicately plucks forlorn, simple shapes to a lost child, where on the former she sharply attacks the strings, letting out piercing, vibrato-less tones. Päivinen moves at will between soprano, tenor, and baritone sax. From mournful, quavering tones to rough, percussive punches, he explores each horn’s full range of sonic possibilities.
This music is spacious, but not ambient, spare but not minimalist, quiet but not sentimental, intense but not ecstatic, free form but not free jazz. The tunes are not ballads, yet nor do they swing. Both albums chart out their own spaces and invite the listener in.
Yarra Yarra is like a musical labyrinth: Päivinen and Haarla create the feeling the music exists before the first note is struck and the last note dies: one theme begins, then ends somewhere totally unfamiliar: short phrases unexpectedly resolve in dissonant places, then long spirals branch off in entirely new directions.
The tunes on Heart of a Bird are more linear, but the emotions expressed change with each listen; first grief and longing, then brief hope and calm – shifting musical sands.
Truly Impressionistic music – no direct source of light is stated, so a listener must provide their own shades. Not only does this music require 100% conviction from the musicians, but it also requests 100% concentration from the listeners.