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IRO HAARLA was born in 1956 in Tampere, Finland, 70 miles north of Helsinki. After school she studied classical piano and composition at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, where she also discovered an empathy with great jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and the Canadian Paul Bley.
She identified strongly with Bley’s “silence and dissonance.”
Haarla met the Finnish jazz drummer, later her husband, Edward Vesala, in 1978 and put aside her classical ambitions, joining his ensemble Sound and Fury as arranger and self-taught harpist, bringing a new architecture to his music.
They made several albums for the Munich-based ECM label, the last being Nordic Gallery in 1994, five years before Vesala’s death.
The tracks are sonically sculptured by Haarla with unusual jazz instruments like accordions, harp, cello and bass flute.
Tracks like Bird in the High Room have a mournful beauty with Versala’s powerful, almost funereal drums and Fulflandia has a quasi-Indian sound.
The Quay of Meditative Future has some evocatively Nordic harp sequences from Haarla. It is as if the European north is reflecting both south and north in surprising union.
In 2005, Haarla led a new quintet on the album Northbound. It was a Finnish-Norwegian band with compatriot Uffe Krokfors on bass and Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, saxophonist Trygve Seim and veteran drummer Jon Christensen. It was recorded in Oslo.
I remember, after hearing this ensemble at the London Jazz Festival nearly a decade ago, how the radiance of the horns resonated with Haarla’s harp strings. Hear Eick’s neo-Arctic trumpet in the opener Avian Kingdom or the deeply soft tone of Seim’s tenor saxophone alongside Haarla’s piano in Barcarole and Krokfors’s tunnelling bass notes.
Haarla’s tenderly ruminative keys introduce With Thanksgiving and the horns harmonist with affecting beauty after Krokfors’s deep prologue to Time for Recollection.
Thought is sacrosanct along with sound all through this album, as if the pondering mind can hear too.
Then the music takes in Finnish land and sea. On the Crest of A Wave has Eick’s trumpet in angry waters, Christensen’s drums beat down on the Waterworn Rocks and Veil of Mist has a haunted fanfare by Seim with Light in the Darkness an anthem of nature with Seim’s tenor exalted.
There is nothing fast in Northbound, as if speed were an irrelevance. Slow is sublime in this album and never a message of dejection. Haarla’s harpstrings are of both snow and sun in Yarra, Yarra … — you can hear them quivering in your ears.
The same five musicians were back in the same Oslo studio again in 2011, recording the album Verspers, and, as soon as you hear the harp/horn colloquy of Haarla, Eick and Seim on the opening A Port on a Distant Shore, you realise how complete their union has grown.
The title tune is a song of evening dedicated by Haarla to her father. Her piano strikes are like bells beside Krokfors’s earthen bass and Seim blows with a pulsating beauty, still slower than slow, as are The Warm Currents of the Sea below the warm ice of Eick’s notes.
In Doxa the pace suddenly quickens, with a sense of menace in the timbre and Seim turns to his soprano saxophone in Satoyama and plays it as if the studio walls could break with his sound and open on to the Scandinavian lands.
The senses are fused and crossed over all through this album. In The Shimmer of the Stars you see the serenity of the Arctic night sky with sounds which cast a beguiling night on your ears, then your eyes.
As you listen to Vespers you wonder how the New Orleans pioneers marching down Canal Street or Basin Street 100 years ago could ever have anticipated this music and musicianship in a faraway country of dreams and snow — a marvel of jazz transmigration, indeed, in forever formation.
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