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The Iro Haarla Quintet at Scandinavia House

Budd Kopman By

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The Iro Haarla Quintet at Scandinavia House, NYC
Scandinavia House
New York City, New York
June 16, 2008

There were not one but two reasons to be excited about attending this concert at Scandinavia House on this night. Pianist/harpist/composer Iro Haarla had never before played in New York City, so this was a first for her as well as her admirers. The second was that the music played was entirely from her debut album on ECM, Northbound (2005), but with only two of the five players on the recording.

Aside from Haarla and her long-time bassist Uffe Krokfors, the band was filled out by Verneri Pohjola (of the Ilmiliekki Quartet) on trumpet, Kari "Sonny" Heinila on tenor sax and flute, and Reino Laine on drums, replacing Matthias Eick, Trygve Seim and Jon Christensen respectively.

With music such as Haarla's, which is structured not so much as melody with harmonic changes but rather as theme and arrangement producing image and emotion, and then complemented by the sterling recording quality of ECM, there is always a strong interest in how the music will sound live. How much will the arrangements change for both the new venue and the new players, and will its message come through?

It did not take long to find out. Simply put, everything that made Northbound such a deeply intense and emotionally inspiring release poured down from the stage. The acoustics were very good: every player could be heard individually as well as within the group, allowing Haarla's arching themes and unique voicings to weave their spell.

The music is mostly performed with an elastic rubato having very little overt pulse, so when the timing of an entrance or a thematic phrase needed to be more precise, either Pohjola or Heinila would use clear physical gestures to mark the crucial spots. Otherwise, the instruments' lines overlapped and intertwined with each other, softening and adding complexity to the music's basically simple harmonies and progressions.

As the front line, both Pohjola and Heinila got inside the music, singing the joy, ecstasy and awe present in these tone poem ruminations of Haarla. The music was truly alive, its essence clearly maintained along with the strongly individual interpretations provided by these two marvelous players. Both took advantage of the freedom permitted them not only to play gorgeous individual lines but also to listen to each other and harmonize.

Krokfors is a very precise and controlled bassist who plays with understated intensity and elegance. Having performed with Haarla for many years, he knows the shapes and predilections of her compositions, and hence his important underpinning role was executed with a nonchalant perfection. Laine's drums were also very important, less for their prominent role than their integral, vital one; clearly, they would be missed if they were not present. The percussionist's delicate cymbal and snare work filled the space, surrounding rather than "driving" the music.

Haarla herself is a very interesting player to watch, especially when in a supporting role. Alternatively playing very wide chords that spanned the keyboard and dense clusters that colored the harmony, she was the image of intensity as her hands would reach toward the keys to play some intended voicing, only to change at the last minute. One could actually see her react to what the band was doing and adjust accordingly, attempting to play the perfect chord at the right time. She is a very physical player who strikes deep into the keys, maintaining contact with them most of the time.

All of the album's paradoxes came through in this performance. The music felt wide open while having a textured density. The many thirds and fifths present hinted at simplicity that was nevertheless always shrouded and colored. The pulse was never really there, yet the music did not just hang in the air.

More important than the parts, was the impact of the music, which truly was greater than the sum of its components. The concert was a complete success because the emotional complexity of Haarla's music—its darkened joy and its fear-tinged beauty—was felt directly by us, the audience. It was an experience of rare and ineffable beauty, not likely to be forgotten any time soon.

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