Pioneers: Pianist Iro Haarla’s future vision

Pianist-composer Iro Haarla became one of Finnish jazz’s first prominent female instrumentalists more than four decades ago, but she doesn’t spend much time looking back. Her latest album takes a new tack, combining electronics and rock guitar with an environmental theme.

Haarla’s new album, "What Will We Leave Behind - Images From Planet Earth", starts with a limpid solo piano piece, one of most beautiful tracks she’s recorded in her 43-year career. Swiftly though, she moves on to an eclectic sonic mix combining electric guitar, an array of synthesizers and organs, spooky gongs and cymbals. Some tracks feature 60s-style psychedelic rock while others echo science fiction soundtracks, Japanese koto music and the sounds of water, birds and whales.

The band includes her husband, bassist Ulf Krokfors, and her daughter, rock drummer Aniida Vesala, whose father was legendary free jazz drummer and bandleader Edward Vesala.

Haarla and Vesala worked together from the late 1970s until his death in 1999, including a series of albums for the ECM label. Together they collaborated with major jazz figures such as Jan Garbarek, Chico Freeman and Reggie Workman. Since his death, she has occasionally worked with Vesala’s old band Sound & Fury, producing and arranging their latest album in 2018.

A rare glimpse backwards

Haarla, who turns 65 in November, takes a rare glimpse backwards later this month in Helsinki. At the We Jazz Festival, she leads a live tribute to Leo Records, which she and Vesala co-founded in 1978 (not to be confused with the UK label of the same name). The label released landmark albums by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, Rinneradio and flautist Pekka Pöyry as well as saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, who will re-join her for the concert.

She and Aaltonen teamed up for the 2015 album "Kirkastus", a set of compositions inspired by the Psalms. Haarla points to this as an example of how religious faith “certainly rings in my music”. Another is the Easter-themed "Ante Lucem - Before Dawn" for jazz quintet and symphony orchestra, released the following year on ECM.

Haarla and Aaltonen have played together since his 1977 album "Springbird" – her recording debut at age 21. The album also featured Vesala, and soon she was working with his group of established older male musicians, playing keyboards, accordion and harp.

The harp was suggested by Vesala, drawing comparisons to John Coltrane’s wife, pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane, whose music is also deeply spiritually-driven.

“I admire very much Alice Coltrane, but I didn’t take her as a role model. Perhaps Edward thought of her when he asked me to start playing the harp,” she suggests.

Her main role in Vesala’s band was writing arrangements, which she describes as “a really hard, responsible job”.

Heikki Sarmanto was a great teacher. He taught me all about the harmony of jazz. At that time I was very shy and uncertain of my skills, but he encouraged me to compose more and to keep studying jazz.

“I didn’t take part in their rehearsals, except sometimes before gigs. I felt always a little bit like an outsider. But I respected Edward very much, so this was a big honour. I’d been playing traditional jazz at the Sibelius Academy. Through Edward, I found freer, rubato jazz like Jan Garbarek and Paul Bley,” she says.

Paul Bley and his ex-wife, fellow pianist Carla Bley, have both long been inspirations for Haarla, leading to the 2018 Carla Bley tribute album Around Again.

“Paul is still my favourite pianist, and I also love Carla’s compositions,” she says.

“When I started that recording project, I immediately stopped listening to Paul’s recordings to escape playing too much like him.”

She was first introduced to Carla Bley by pianist-composer Heikki Sarmanto at the Sibelius Academy, along with another enduring favourite, Bill Evans.

“Heikki was a great teacher. He taught me all about the harmony of jazz. At that time I was very shy and uncertain of my skills, but he encouraged me to compose more and to keep studying jazz.”

She also studied composition with Einar Englund and piano with Izumi Tateno – both major figures in Finnish music – before graduating from the conservatory in 1979. Soon she and Vesala married and had two daughters.

Solitary child with a piano

Her own childhood was “quite lonely,” says Haarla, whose parents divorced when she was very young.

“My dear mother concentrated on her career as an opera singer, so my nearest person was my older brother, Teuri Haarla. I admired him and followed him everywhere like a puppy.” The two remain close, with her brother contributing the cover art for her new album.

“My next closest ‘friend’ was our piano at home. I found music in my loneliness, and then I wasn’t lonely anymore – ever again.”

At age 10, she was accepted to the Sibelius Academy’s Junior Academy, while soaking up classical music at home.

“More than piano music, I listened to symphonic music such as Mahler, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel. The most beautiful experience was listening to my mother’s singing, the beautiful arias and orchestrations of Verdi and Puccini. I still listen to her LPs often,” says Haarla.

My next closest ‘friend’ was our piano at home. I found music in my loneliness, and then I wasn’t lonely anymore – ever again.

“As a teenager, my brother started to play Jimi Hendrix at home – very loud! At first I was terrified, but as time went on, I began to like it.”

Soon she was also listening to the progressive sounds of Frank Zappa and Genesis, as well as soul, gospel and blues by Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King and others.

Her own playing took on more soul, too.

“When I was 14, my father died. My way to discharge my sorrow was to become
absorbed in music. I began to compose, and became so involved in music that my profession became clear. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Planet in peril

However it wasn’t until after Vesala’s death that she truly stepped out as a solo artist and bandleader. In the new millennium, she gathered a Finnish-Norwegian band for two acclaimed albums on the ECM label, as well as a series of releases on Helsinki label TUM.

She has also often collaborated with the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra, including a 2002 piece for Stańko as soloist.

“My collaborations with UMO have been some of the most important projects in my career. Our Silent Music tour in 2019 was great. All the musicians played so well, with deep feeling, which is an essential part of my compositions.”

Alongside these projects, she won the 2006 Yrjö (“Georgie”) Award, the highest honour in Finnish jazz, followed the Pori Jazz Festival’s Ted Curson Award in 2018.

The latter prize led to her latest project, "What Will We Leave Behind", released with a new group, Iro Haarla Electric Ensemble. Besides Haarla, the lead soloists are guitarist Jukka Orma from the rock band Sielun Veljet and tenor saxophonist Sami Sippola, whose group Hot Heros sometimes features Haarla as a guest.

“For a long time, I’ve intended to make a recording dedicated to nature, which has
always been my source of inspiration. When I received the Curson Award, I decided to use that financial support to carry out this project, bringing it up to date with our worries about the future of our common home, this incredible planet,” she explains.

For a long time, I’ve intended to make a recording dedicated to nature, which has
always been my source of inspiration.

“I wanted to innovate my sound and rhythms. By using instruments like analogue synthesizers, Hammond organ, electric guitar and bass, as well as acoustic instruments, I tried to create as colourful a musical world as possible, resembling the tone of a symphony orchestra.”

That has always been her approach to the piano as well, drawing on her childhood’s symphonic soundtrack.

“I approach the piano as if it was an orchestra. I try to find a profound sound in my touch
and play in a singing manner. I try to sort out the important lines between the left and right hands to avoid a monotonous sound. I prefer dynamic variations and space. The right timing – breathing – is very important. Virtuosity is not my priority, even though it’s nice sometimes.”

Virtuosity is a given, whether with her own groups or the more dissonant, challenging Sound & Fury. So too is beauty – but always with depth and an edge.

“I always have the best possible musicians around me, people who know how to play my compositions,” says Haarla. “Our common atmosphere is light and happy. Without a good, relaxed feeling in the band, you can’t have success. I give them room to play open solos. All I demand is that they play my melodies with emotion and with all their hearts!”

On stage:

Nov 6: Iro Haarla Electric Ensemble, Tampere Jazz Happening

Nov 30: Iro Haarla Presents: Leo Records (feat. Verneri Pohjola, Juhani Aaltonen and Pepa Päivinen), We Jazz Festival, Helsinki


Iro Haarla Electric Ensemble: What Will We Leave Behind – Images From Planet Earth

(released Oct. 29, 2021 by Svart Records, LP Dec. 3, 2021)