Northbound...

Iro Haarla
Selected Discography

by
Bill Shoemaker

Edward Vesala Sound & Fury
Edward Vesala Sound & Fury (Vesala 3rd from Right)       Jukka Kyrömies © 2006

with Edward Vesala Sound and Fury:
Lumi (ECM 1339)
Ode To The Death Of Jazz (ECM 1413)
Invisible Storm (ECM 1461)
Nordic Gallery (ECM 1541)

What Iro Haarla describes as the growing severity of Edward Vesala’s music in his latter years can be traced through these four ECM albums. However, this trend line meanders instead of plunging straight down. The birdsong-punctuated “Bird in the High Room” is strong evidence that Vesala’s charming whimsy remained intact even on his last ECM album, Nordic Gallery, recorded in 1993-4.

Haarla’s presence is immediately felt with the ethereal solo piano arpeggios of “The Wind” that open Lumi. But, over the course of this and the other ECMs, it is her arrangements that make the most lasting impressions. The ensembles on this and other compositions on this ’86 recording have the sigh-like attack and trailing decay that have become standard operational procedures for latter-day Nordic jazz groups like The Source. However, this was just one band of colors in the spectrum generated by Vesala, which extends to idioms as diverse as calypso and tango. And, there are charts with window-rattling power like “Frozen Melody.” To apply precise shadings, Vesala taps the talents of ten musicians, drawing upon a palette that spans Haarla’s mystery-shrouded harp to Raoul Björkenheim’s harrowing electric guitar. Perhaps most importantly, the arrival of Haarla and Jorma Tapio, who becomes the linchpin of the band’s powerful sax section, triggers the transition towards what is arguably the best edition of Sound and Fury.

The music on Ode To The Death Of Jazz, recorded in 1989, is less funereal than the title suggests. Vesala’s sense of structure on pieces like “Sylvan Swizzle” and “Watching for the Signal” is far closer to turn-of-the-(20th)century tone poems than jazz tunes, offsetting translucent flute motives, shimmering harp and percussion swells with stentorian passages. In sharp contrast, “Infinite Express” taps a primal energy, combining a quasi Bo Diddley rhythm and riff-dotted horn passages, which is heated by Tapio’s snarling alto solo. “Winds of Sahara” has a Sun Ra-like collision of streamlined section writing and caterwauling improvised highlights, including Haarla’s organ fills. It becomes clear with this second recording that Haarla’s assets as a multi-instrumentalist are almost as essential to Vesala’s music as her arrangements. A touch-sensitive pianist with a penchant for exquisitely placed silences; a harpist that evokes the ancients; and a keyboardist that can churn out bold abstractions; Haarla has a uniquely faceted aesthetic.

Vesala’s great feat in constructing albums is that the diverse idioms and forms he employed were circumscribed by a powerful ambiance, the effect of which is akin to watching a thunderhead approach from the horizon. Of these four albums, 1991’s Invisible Storm puts the tensile strength of this aspect of Vesala’s art to its most strenuous test, as it spans hushed, cello-highlighted chorales to rumbling, drum kit-intensified compositions that give credence to the band’s name. Additionally, a tipping point had been reached on this effort; while prior efforts could be primarily attributed to Vesala’s will as a composer and bandleader, the strengths of this album reflect equilibrium within the ensemble. The horn section had been whittled down to the well-balanced quartet of Tapio, trumpeter Matti Riikonen, and woodwind players Pepa Päivenen and Jouni Kannisto. Guitarist Jimi Sumen became a consummate role player, making momentary, blood-curdling statements before slipping back into the ensemble without a trace. And, then there’s Haarla, who does everything from stirring up a sonic sandstorm with Sumen to engaging Vesala in a duo on the title track that suggests a mid-‘60s encounter between Paul Bley and Milford Graves.

Recorded in 1993 and ’94, Nordic Gallery extends some strands of Vesala’s music, including idioms such as the tango, and devices such as exclamatory horn themes and abrupt changes in direction. The album also documents a hardening of Vesala’s sensibility, in that, for the most part, there is less diaphanous lyricism in the themes and orchestrations, and a more frequent use of an almost pugnacious attack. The results are engaging, though it arguably tips the music decidedly towards the “Fury” part of Vesala’s concept. Given the seething quality of some of the saxophone solos, this might be a case of Vesala taking the Ellingtonian tact of writing to his players’ strengths. Tellingly, Haarla is a bit less of a presence here than on the earlier albums, her introduction of the koto into the mix notwithstanding. This is an enigmatic last chapter to Vesala’s output for ECM, as it provides as many questions about where Vesala was headed than it answered about this complex artist.

Iro Haarla
Iro Haarla                                                       Maarit Kytoharju © 2006

as co-leader:
Iro Haarla + Pepa Päivenen: Yarra Yarra (November NVR 2017-2)
Iro Haarla + Ulf Krokers: Heart Of A Bird (TUM CD 004)
Iro Haarla – Ulf Krokers Loco Motife: Penguin Beguine (TUM CD 011)

In a vital way, these three recordings trace the arc of loss and renewal in Haarla’s personal life. Though Vesala founded Haarla’s duo with Fellow Sound and Fury alum Pepa Päivenen, Yarra Yarra was recorded in the depths of the Finnish winter in 2000, the year after Vesala’s death. The melancholic tone of the album is therefore unsurprising, but Haarla and Päivenen’s ability to sustain it without numbing the listener is remarkable. This is partially attributeable to the duo setting, in which silence plays a more discernable, ongoing role in the music than in an ensemble the size of Sound and Fury. Päivenen’s piercing tone on soprano and tenor saxophones, which rivals Jan Garbarek’s Nordic gold standard, is also essential to the album’s tone (he additionally has a gutsy sound on baritone and an uncanny glow on alto flute). Haarla alternately gives Päivenen a sparse backdrop that can either be wistful or quietly jarring, or she confronts him forcefully, as is the case on their forceful reading of Vesala’s “Invisible Storm.” The duo setting also allows Haarla’s harp to move to the foreground, instead of being just another highlighting color in Sound and Fury. At times, there’s a delicate stasis to her harp playing; but Haarla is also persuasive when she sweeps the strings to create cascades of sound. While this is a transitional album for Haarla on some counts – only three of her compositions are included, compared with five of Vesala’s – it is nevertheless a striking reintroduction of Haarla as an artist in her own right.

More than any of her other recordings, Heart Of A Bird points up her grounding in Paul Bley’s music – or perhaps more precisely, Annette Peacock’s music as interpreted by Bley. An album mostly comprised of duets with bassist Ulf Krokers, whose big reverberant sound, glancing references to the changes and penchant for short melodic divergences makes for a close-enough-for-jazz comparison to Gary Peacock, this 2003 album is a testament that there’s a fine, even imperceptible line between melancholy and romance. Particularly on the four tracks where saxophonist Rasmus Korsström also plays, there are easily discernable similarities in the arcs of some of themes to those on Yarra Yarra. Yet, the tone of this album is markedly different, and is best summed up by the title of and the lift provided by the last tune of the album, “Light in the Sadness.” A case in point of how Keith Jarrett’s songs of the early and mid ‘70s still influences Nordic jazz, Haarla’s composition avoids the pandering swoon-baiting of most Jarrett imitators. Instead, Haarla, Krokers and Korsström (on tenor) give an unforced reading of the piece, which proves to be far more effective than if they had wrung out every last drop of sentimentality. There’s a signature quality to the piece, a notion reinforced by its reprise on Northbound.

While the duo recordings establish Haarla’s bona fides as a pianist in a way that the Sound and Fury albums did not, Penguin Beguine emphasizes Haarla’s abilities on organ and synthesizer. A nonet co-led with Krokers, Loco Motife carries on Sound and Fury’s tradition of powerful ensembles, full of full-throated horn writing, buttressed by a pile-driving rhythm section with two basses and two drummers. There’s a world of difference in temperament between the two ensembles, however, as Loco Motife’s music does not have the existential subtext that distinguished Vesala’s. Subsequently, the hard-hitting groove of Kroker’s title piece and the nimble lyricism of Haarla’s “At Night, Cat Walking” are to be taken at ear value. Haarla’s ability to place an enhancing sound and phrase at the right moment in an ensemble, a skill she honed both as an arranger and instrumentalist in Sound and Fury, remains very much in evidence, be it a Sun Ra-like synth blurt or a Lawrence of Newark organ wash. Ably aided and abetted by Krokers, bassist Antti Hytti, and drummers Tom Nekljudow and Tomas Törnoos, Haarla’s writing and comping elicits strong solos from the formidable front line of Korsström, trumpeter Anders Bergcrantz, saxophonist Mikko Innanen and guitarist Mikko Iivanainen. Though Northbound will undoubtedly be determinative in labeling Haarla to a yet unknown degree, albums like Penguin Beguine are equally important to that articulation.

with Rolling Thunder:
Live In Japan
(Aketa’s Disk MHACD-2607)

For the usual inexplicable reasons – dumb luck, cruel fate, benign neglect – Rolling Thunder is far less known outside Finland than Vesala’s Sound and Fury and Raoul Björkenheim’s Krakatau, even though leader Jorma Tapio was an essential voice in both ensembles. Originally a pianoless ensemble, Rolling Thunder’s early music had a ritualistic aura that was not far afield of that of AACM artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The solemnity of Rolling Thunder’s music is still very much in evidence in 2002, when Live In Japan was recorded by reconfigured quartet rounded out by Haarla, Krokers and Nekljudow. Haarla’s presence on both piano and harp places this quality in much closer proximity to John Coltrane’s late music, and is really the only recording where comparisons between Haarla and Alice Coltrane stand up at all, as Haarla’s playing is more reliant upon earth-shaking chords and dramatic arpeggios. However, this is attributeable to the material at hand, which includes Coltrane’s rarely performed “To Be,” which gets a hypnotic reading centering on Tapio’s ethereal flute lines. Additionally, the Coltrane influence also seeps into Nekljudow’s “Mongolia,” Krokers’ “Farewell Song,” and Tapio’s “Second Life,” all of which feature Tapio’s searing tenor. Still, on tracks like Krokers’ “Mellansong,” Haarla asserts her pensively angular, silence-punctuated playing to fine effect. Again, she is able to branch out in yet another direction, but remain rooted in her core values. That’s a measure of a mature artist.

as leader:
Northbound
(ECM 1918)

Compared to Northbound, all of Haarla’s previous recordings seem like preliminaries. Technically her debut as a leader, this 2004 studio album is stunning, but not in the sense that it overwhelms with pyrotechnics or audacious innovations. It is its willful intimate revelations that set it apart, and it places Haarla in rarified company – Annette Peacock, Billy Strayhorn and precious few others. Several compositions articulate a unique, stoic brand of torch music. Both saxophonist Trygve Seim and trumpeter Mathias Eick convey the music’s paradoxical mix of yearning and fulfillment in the ensembles, and their solos cut to the material’s quick with laser precision. Haarla and Krokers’ slightly asgringent comping and veteran drummer Jon Christensen’s quietly assured spatters create an undercurrent that at times threatens to become a rip tide. The other aspects of her work are also ramped, like her harp-signified odes to Capitol N Nature and the late Coltrane-informed lines. ECM’s patented engineering aesthetic serves every aspect of Haarla’s music very well; it is particularly effective in detailing the tactical use of decay in her piano solos. While the album’s most heartstring tugging pieces place her closer to 1970s Keith Jarrett than on previous albums, it is on Northbound where the Paul Bley antecedents are most discernable. Still, Haarla’s music has matured to such an extent that its own merits thoroughly supercede not only her early influences, but also Vesala’s as well. It is tempting to call Northbound a definitive statement, but it is probable that such assessments will be supplanted by her every album going forward.

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