Iro Haarla may not be particularly well-known, but the Finnish pianist/harpist's influence has been felt by anyone familiar with the work of her late husband, drummer Edward Vesala. According to saxophonist Trygve Seimwho not only played with Vesala towards the end of his life, but is also part of Haarla's quintet on her ECM debut, NorthboundHaarla was an uncredited co-composer on many of Vesala's compositions.
If one compares Satu (ECM, 1977) with Lumi (ECM, 1987), Vesala's first collaboration with Haarla, there's a significant stylistic shift towards more through-composed music. The free play that defined Vesala's earlier work is still there; but so too is more purposefully defined orchestration and an almost paradoxically structured chaos. Vesala's unusual instrumental lineups also served as inspiration for Seim's own recordings, including the superb Sangam (ECM, 2005).
Haarla's classical background helped move Vesala's music to a place that remains without precedent. She brings a similar sense of compositional focus to Northbound, which also features trumpeter Mathias Eicklast heard on guitarist Jacob Young's Evening Falls (ECM, 2004)plus bassist and Vesala band mate Uffe Krokfors and an ECM mainstay, drummer Jon Christensen. In this more conventional instrumental setting, Haarla's quintet is able to explore a musical space similar to that of Vesala's, but its more spacious environs provide room for greater individual expression and interplay, while eschewing the more anarchistic maelstrom that so characterized Vesala's sometimes unstructured explorations.
Haarla's fluid writing is deeply melodic, but it retains a certain cool melancholy that reflects her northern roots. Her sometimes delicate, sometimes sweeping harp playing lends an acutely visual quality to pieces like "Avian Kingdom," evoking images foreign to those unfamiliar with the rugged beauty of remote Finnish landscapes. Eick and Seim circle each other like the birds of the title, only occasionally finding points of unison, creating a feeling of freedom that, supported by Christensen's textural playing, is deceptive given the tune's clear scoring. That doesn't mean there aren't points of departurethe core of the song is clearly a free for allbut in its restraint and search for common ground, the quintet never feels anything less than collectively intentioned.
While they have as many differences as similarities, Haarla's soft approach shares some commonality with pianist Marilyn Crispell's gentler ECM trio recordings, including Amaryllis (ECM, 2001). But whereas Crispell often relies on sketches as a starting point for collective interplay, Haarla's more detailed approach shapes the quintet's interactions more firmly, providing stronger reference points for the lyrical approach to soloing that defines the entire recording.
Haarla's music may be vividly melodic, but it comes from a musical aesthetic antithetical to the familiar harmonies associated with the jazz mainstream. Nor is the drama of Northbound rooted in the conventional excitement of rhythmic drive. Instead, a more rarefied approach and exotic tonalities make its compelling appeal all the more remarkable. Haarla's debut as a leader has been a long time coming, but it's clearly been well worth the wait.
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