“Iro Haarla is currently undergoing a period of utmost creativity both as composer and as bandleader, becoming one of the most central Finnish jazz musicians of the decade. Haarla’s music of mostly ballads is full of expression and it is recognizably Scandinavian while at the same time unique in its impressionism.”
from the jury statement of the Finnish Jazz Federation’s Yrjö-Award 2006.
“Compared to ‘Northbound’, all of Haarla’s previous recordings seem like preliminaries. This studio album is stunning, but not in the sense that it overwhelms with pyrotechnics or audacious innovations. It is its wilful intimate revelations that set it apart, and it places Haarla in rarefied company – Annette Peacock, Billy Strayhorn and precious few others. Several compositions articulate a unique, stoic brand of torch music.”
Bill Shoemaker, Point of Departure.
The second album from Iro Haarla’s Finnish-Norwegian quintet carries forward the work begun on the composer-pianist-harpist’s “Northbound” album, which helped to focus overdue attention on Haarla’s music in its own right as well as on her role as a shaping force in progressive jazz. “Vespers”, likewise, extends a tradition of music - and a scope of feeling - that Iro helped establish in the Far North in her years as arranger/orchestrator for Edward Vesala’s bands and for his influential ECM recordings, including “Lumi”, “Ode To The Death Of Jazz”, “Invisible Storm” and “Nordic Gallery”. Haarla’s group includes powerful bassist Uffe Krokfors, himself a former member of Vesala’s Sound & Fury ensemble, who has partnered with Iro in most of her musical activities of the last decade. The quintet line-up was assembled in 2004 with help from producer Manfred Eicher, and with saxophonist Trygve Seim an important contributor from the outset. Seim, who played briefly with Edward Vesala at the end of the 1990s, has often remarked upon the influence of Vesala-Haarla on his own writing. Plans to continue work in a quartet with Edward and Iro were cut short by Vesala’s death in 1999, but Seim went on to tour Finland with Haarla.
“Northbound” and “Vespers” feature another very unique drummer, Jon Christensen, one of the innovators. He brings to Iro Haarla’s music his own special sense of dynamics, sensitivity and unpredictability. Like Vesala he understands how to play very persuasively and very individually in the free ballad zone. Indeed, he helped to shape it.
Now a rising star on the international jazz scene, Mathias Eick counts his experiences with Haarla as crucial for his development. “I really grew in working with Iro Haarla,” he told the International Trumpet Guild Journal in 2008. “It was fantastic to work with her. I got my first chance to work extensively in a slow, rubato style. [Iro’s songs] demand a lot of you because you have to communicate effectively with other musicians which is really hard in music like this. It’s quite difficult music, but a rewarding experience.” It was through working with Iro that Eick and Trygve Seim would hone their special musical understanding, their way of phrasing together. Subsequently they brought their highly compatible sounds into the very different context of Manu Katché’s group (see the album “Playground”), and Eick has since made occasional guest appearances with Trygve’s large ensembles.
Iro Haarla, born in 1956, studied piano and composition at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy and jazz and improvising with Heikki Sarmanto. Early jazz role models included Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and especially Paul Bley whose “silence and dissonance” was influential. On harp, Haarla is self-taught. After dedicating herself exclusively to the music of Edward Vesala for two decades, she began to record and perform in other contexts. A duo with saxophonist Pepa Päivenmen was followed by a further duo with bassist Uffe Krokfors. Haarla and Krokfors co-lead the nine-piece band Loco Motife, and Iro has also been heard as soloist, alongside saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, playing Raoul Björkenheim’s music with the UMO Jazz Orchestra.
Trygve Seim, Mathias Eick and Jon Christensen continue to record for ECM in diverse contexts. Saxophonist Trygve Seim’s recent releases include “Purcor” with Andreas Utnem, “one of ECM’s most consistently beautiful records in years”, according to All About Jazz. Master drummer Jon Christensen, one of the architects of ECM’s early musical directions, delighted many with his contributions to “Remembrance” with Ketil Bjørnstad and Tore Brunborg in 2009. Trumpeter Mathias Eick recently completed work on a new album “Skala”, to be released in March 2011.