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On her leader debut for ECM, Finnish pianist-harpist-composer Iro Haarla unveils a strong and responsive new band that pools some very significant talents... and some strikingly original compositions written in a harmonic language that will stir powerful associations for followers of music from the North.

Iro Haarla was for many years the inner architect and orchestrator of the music of her husband, drummer and bandleader Edward Vesala (1954-1999). She had just left Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy when she met Vesala in 1978 and put her own career as a composer and concert pianist on hold to help him realize his musical visions. Vesala was very much an intuitive musician, and it was Haarla who gave shape and colour to many of his ideas in her arrangements and editing of material for his Sound & Fury group. Like all his players, she was devoted to the cause. Edward needed an improvising harpist? Iro promptly learned how to play the harp. (And, later koto, analog synthesizers, accordion, whatever was required). Vesala’s influence on her work and her musical values was profound and continues, but she gave much to his work, too – as can be adjudged by listening to the four Sound & Fury ECM albums on which she appears: “Lumi”, “Ode To The Death of Jazz”, “Invisible Storm” and “Nordic Gallery.” If she started out as Edward’s gifted amanuensis and muse, in the end they were creating the music together.

“It so great to play with Iro,” Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim recently told John Kelman of Jazz Views. “She’s composed some really fantastic stuff in her special way of writing that comes out of the collaboration with Edward.” Seim cites Vesala/Harla amongst the decisive influences on his own musical development. After experiencing a wipe-out Sound & Fury concert in Molde in 1992, Trygve sought out the Vesalas in Finland. He subsequently played with Edward and Iro in 1996 in an ad hoc festival group with Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen, and Vesala was keen for the collaboration to continue. A new quartet including Haarla and Seim was assembled in 1999, but Vesala died suddenly at the end of the year.

Iro Haarla’s new quintet incorporates more improvising than Sound & Fury permitted, and includes another drummer of great dramatic unpredictability: Jon Christensen, veteran of some 60 ECM sessions, always bringing new ideas and sounds and pulses into play. Christensen and Seim first played together in 1992 in the group Oslo 13. The great Norwegian drummer has always been open to playing with young improvisers and he works regularly with trumpeter Mathias Eick in Jacob Young’s group (see “Evening Falls”). A precocious talent, Eick was only 12 when he first jammed with Seim and Young. At 25 he is playing across a range of idioms including free improvising and alternate rock (with Jaga Jazzist or Motorpsycho) as well as jazz, where his vaulting invention is often astonishing.

Bassist Uffe Krokfors, a powerful player, worked alongside Iro on Sound & Fury’s classic “Ode To The Death Of Jazz” in 1989 then moved on to join Raoul Björkenheim’s band Krakatau, appearing on the ECM albums “Volition” and “Matinale”. He has worked extensively with Iro Haarla in the last few years, contexts including a trio with sax player Rasmus Kösström, and a new large ensemble, Loco Motife, which they co-lead.

Trygve Seim plays with great sensitivity in this setting, Haarla’s often anthemic writing establishing an emotional climate in which he can move freely, making soulful use of the bent notes and discreet eastward-leaning phraseology that has become part of his palette. “Light in the Sadness”, one of the pieces is called, which might also describe the tone of the album as a whole.

As for Iro Haarla, she plays with an alert choice of notes on piano, making them all count: as she has always has done, in free-flowing ballads that belong to a tradition she helped to create. The characteristic cascading harp belongs to that tradition as well. In all, “Northbound” is a very strong statement from a player and composer who should be heard more widely. Plans to tour with this quintet will help to ensure that this is the case.