May 2011

Iro Haarla Quintet
Vespers
ECM Records

Iro Haarla is a Finnish pianist, harpist and composer who had a long and diverse career before she released her ECM debut, Northbound, in 2006. In its rapt, forceful quietness, it was one of the memorable jazz albums of that year. The Finnish/Norwegian quintet on Northbound has been reunited for Vespers.

Trumpeter Mathias Eick, tenor/soprano saxophonist Trygve Seim and drummer Jon Christensen are the Norwegians. They suit Haarla’s songs because they are all patient and inquisitive and capable of selfless dedication to ensemble atmosphere. Finnish bassist Ulf Krokfors is a long-term Haarla associate. He provides shifting contexts from which the other four players venture. Eick, one of the most poetic players to enter jazz in the new millennium, has described Haarla’s music as “difficult” and “demanding.” But there is no sense of strain here, as the players float in the free air of Haarla’s open forms and postulate their own ideas and evolve them.

Haarla’s aesthetic is quintessentially Nordic in its lyric starkness and autumnal solemnity. But her harmonic language, in its subtly discordant voicings, is distinctive, and so is her willingness to leave her emotional and spiritual ambiguities unresolved. Haarla’s slow pieces, full of silence, are moods suggested by their titles (“A Port on a Distant Shore,” “The Shimmer of Falling Stars”). They are also vistas within which Seim and Eick have time and space to extend their forays, together or apart, and come to revelations. Haarla selects her own moments with care: single-note lines on piano as gentle interjections, or light sweeps on harp creating pinpoints of background light. Few jazz artists are as successful as Haarla in creating a world, a scope of feeling, and making it their own.

Originally published in May 2011
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