Iro Haarla in Helsinki

Bill Shoemaker

Iro Haarla
Iro Haarla, Trygve Seim, Mathias Eick, Uffe Krokfors, Jon Christensen     Maarit Kytoharju©2006

In a country with more than its share of stunning architecture, Temppeliaukio Church is one of Finland’s most awe-inspiring buildings. But, you would never know it from its exterior. Though it is literally carved out of a granite hilltop in Helsinki, there are no sky-cleaving features that can be seen blocks away. Instead, its unassuming entrance is barely a slit, more appropriate to a 1970s vintage college library. The interior, however, is spellbinding. The combination of the solid rock walls, the massive concave copper ceiling, and the light pouring in between ceiling-supporting ribs is quintessentially Finnish, a melding of the elemental and the modern. Though the design and materials used in the sanctuary frequently produces horrendous acoustics, Temppeliaukio proved to be a fitting space to hear Iro Haarla’s “Northbound” quintet in the culminating performance of the UMO Jazz Festival in early September.

Despite its Gloria-shouting natural and architectural marvels, the sanctuary’s striking acoustical characteristic was its dryness, which facilitated the silences crucial to Haarla’s compositions and to her performances on piano and harp. However, the concert also reinforced the other qualities that distinguish her music from that of artists with whom she shares little beyond a region of origin. It is understandable how Haarla’s music is tagged as Nordic Jazz, given her work with her late husband, Edward Vesala, and her current affiliation with ECM, which is arguably Nordic Jazz’s label of record. But, the branding overlooks the fact that the music she created with Vesala was thoroughly iconoclastic, and that the maverick spirit of recordings like Lumi and Invisible Storm still lives on Northbound.

Iconoclasm and unfathomable emotional depth are not mutually exclusive qualities in music, though they are dangerously difficult to balance in a single work. More often it is the case that an artist achieves an approximate balance between these seemingly polar forces over a body of works that takes years, if not decades to produce. Haarla is such an artist, even if the only recording under her sole leadership dives headfirst into the deep. Such an assessment is predicated on a central arguable point: Arrangers are co-composers. If the work with Vesala is bundled with her work subsequent to his passing in 1999, Haarla’s music is more iconoclastic than suggested by cursory exposure to Northbound.

This articulation of Haarla’s music was supported by her shuffle mode-like performance of most of the album at Temppeliaukio Church. The quintet did not simply read the pieces; they tested each composition’s tensile strength. Her themes were empathically sung. Her cohorts – saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick, bassist Uffe Krokfors and veteran drummer Jon Christensen – were edgier than expected. Silence threw the occasional elbow instead of providing a passive ellipsis.

Subsequently, the music moved in unforeseen directions. There turned out to be two rallying points: Haarla and Christensen, who played with the conviction that comes of a serious yet successful bout with illness. In tandem with Krokfors, Haarla created rhythmic countercurrents that reshaped the harmonic contours of her pieces. Christensen’s counter-intuitive, low volume playing threw sparks throughout the set. Both Seim and Eick conveyed intensity through tone production, which is not to say that they shriek and holler; rather, their magisterial long notes and occasionally serpentine line peak at their conclusion instead of feathering out into silence. The performances were captivating, but in a markedly different way than achieved on the album. Luminosity turned into heat. Lyricism singed the ear.

During the performance, the long summer sunset commenced, the initially sky blue skies turning purple then black. The wane amber tint of the interior lighting provided contrasting warmth. The copper copula took on a mysterious lustre. Music and environment merged with palpable force. To a considerable degree, this convergence exemplified a theme of Iro Haarla’s music: The human endeavor of love and communication within the context of Nature. It was simultaneously chilling and warming, the type of sensation one frequently experiences when confronted with profundity.

Crypto Gramophone

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