Iro Haarla: Northbound (ECM 1918)

Northbound

Iro Haarla
Northbound

Iro Haarla piano, harp
Trygve Seim saxophones
Mathias Eick trumpet
Uffe Krokfors double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded September 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s surely tempting to label Iro Haarla as a “jazz harpist,” which in one sense she is. Northbound proves she is far more. Above all, Haarla is a composer of contrast and depth, one who is eminently comfortable mixing diverse ingredients into a picture that remains fully within her grasp at any given moment, even as she allows it to develop at its own pace. For her ECM leader debut, she draws saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick, bassist Uffe Krokfors, and drummer Christensen into her net. While familiar names all, it’s especially inspiring to see Krokfors among them, carrying as he does the credit and experience of playing on drummer Edward Vesala’s Ode To The Death Of Jazz.

If “Avian Kingdom” seems to cast a fulsome, nostalgic glance to Vesala’s mood, it’s because Haarla shared tenure not only in his influential Sound & Fury project, but also in his adoration. Since 1978, she became a guiding light in her late husband’s sonic activities, learning the harp and other instruments (she is a pianist by training) to cast just the shadows he was looking for. Shadows are indeed an important coloring tool throughout this, the album’s opener, and its subsequent autumnal spread. Christensen, too, resurrects some of Vesala’s ancient spirit, bringing free-flowing comfort throughout.

Accordingly, the set is anchored by Haarla’s melodies, which manage to be at once contemplative and near bursting with expressive power. Each highlights one among this tender quintet. In “Time For Recollection” it’s Krokfors who breaks the hermetic seal with his bow, woven into a braid of two by whispering harp strings. Likewise in the title track, which ends the album on a cartographic note. Even the breezy “Barcarole” shelters a thoughtful heart, wistful yet secure in its free being (if not also its being free). It’s an open-topped vehicle for Eick and Seim in turn, a verse that takes equal pleasure in rhyme and dissonance. Haarla, too, comes forward, especially in the more hopeful passages. Whether uplifting the band’s full strengths in “Light In The Sadness” or greasing the wheel in “With Thanksgiving,” she gives the horns plenty of palimpsests across which to chalk their messages.

In both concept and execution, scattered tracks play variations on an aquatic theme. Some are more obvious. “On A Crest Of A Wave,” for one, features rolling pianism, splashing cymbals, and a bass undertow. And there are the folksong qualities of “Yarra, Yarra…” (presumably a reference to Australia’s perennial river of the same name), in which harp and bass opening a deep conversational rift in the sheetrock as the horns span their bridges in response. Others, like “Veil Of Mist,” work a more abstract form of magic. Still others marry both states of mind. To wit: the album’s two duo settings. “Waterworn Rocks,” an album highlight, pairs Haarla at the keys with Christensen, while “A Singing Water Nymph” is a lacy interlude for harp and saxophone that proceeds in rippling steps and crosshatches them with reflections from above.

In light of these geographic paintings, Northbound belongs on the shelf next to The Sea and is sure to please fans of that classic predecessor. Although Haarla’s slow pacing may be off-putting to those looking to tap their feet, just know that such a methodology gives every nuance a chance to be heard and felt. Such attention to detail sets Haarla apart and asks only that listeners slow their heartbeats for a while in return.

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