Friday, February 17, 2017

Iro Haarla, Ante Lucem for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Quintet

The world of jazz today, even when subtracting the smooth commercial element, is wonderfully full and varied. We are as of now about 100 years into the recorded documentation of the music, and as a mostly untranscribed, improvisational form we of course have to subtract all the live music never recorded, but even then there is so much wonderful music that every so often I am astonished.

The form of jazz that combines a small jazz group with a symphony orchestra remains somewhat extraordinary, somewhat rare. The expense of successfully putting together a good performance and recording of this sort of jazz is partly responsible for the rarity of it. Jazz has mostly existed without the sort of charitable or grant oriented support that, for example, opera demands these days to continue.

But in spite of such obstacles we do get some good examples of jazz plus symphony now and again. I wont rehearse the pertinent totality here. Instead I would like to recommend a recent venture by Iro Haarla, Ante Lucem for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Quintet (ECM 2457).

It is the sort of project that  ECM excels in producing--resonant lyrically haunting post-romantic orchestral sprawls (courtesy of Norrland Operans Symfoniorkester under Jukka Lisakkila) and a jazz quintet of largely Northern European artists: Iro herself on piano and harp,  Hayden Powell on trumpet, Trygve Seim on soprano and tenor sax, Ulf Krokfors on double bass, and Mike Kallio on drums and percussion. Fine players, all.

The accent is on a luxuriant, penetrating depiction of winter and the time before dawn, an overcoming of darkness by light, combined with a reflection on the Passion and a remembrance of the composer's opera singing mother, who passed away sometime before this music was completed.

All is certainly not pastoral. There is darkness, struggle, cosmic disturbance as well as peace and transcendence.

It unwinds in sonically memorable ways, the quintet and its soloists expressing concerted-like helmsmanship along with chamber togetherness, all of which contrasts with the full breadth of the symphony orchestra.

It is not outgoingly modernistic as a whole but more a lyrical mode that contrasts with a basically modern viewpoint. It is music that alernatingly challenges and transports. It is neither jazz in the most obvious sense (so much as ECM jazz in the evocative mode) nor is it strictly symphonic (of course). Yet the orchestra plays a key role in the sonic result, just as the jazz combo has a critical role to play.

To appreciate this recording to the max you may need to take down your guard and relax, to let go of the set of expectations you might have about this kind of hybrid. Just let yourself go and let the music speak to you. Then I expect like me you will become increasingly enchanted with this singular totality.

Well done! Different! Unexpected!


  1. Iro Haarla is a woman. She is the widow of Edward Vesala.

  2. Iro Haarla is a woman. She is the widow of Edward Vesala.

  3. Thank you for the correction, fgh3. I have altered the text to reflect her gender.