Northbound is Iro Haarla's debut recording for ECM. Haarla is best known for her piano and harp contributions to the recordings of her late husband, Edward Vesala. Those contributions lent a serious grounding to Vesala's records -- one need only to compare them before and after her arrival. All the real evidence one needs, however, is here. Haarla's musical sound world may have improvisation in its moody Finnish heart, but her structures are based on complex yet delicate harmonic structures and a canny lyric sense. They are detailed yet sparse, sophisticated yet deceptively simple. Aiding her on this venture are veteran drummer Jon Christensen and saxophonist Trygve Seim, both of whom played with Vesala. Also in this mix are trumpeter Mathias Eick -- ECM guitarist Jacob Young's collaborator -- and bassist Uffe Krokfors. The ten-and-a-half-minute "With Thanksgiving" offers as complete a portrait of the ghostly yet utterly earth and folk-rooted compositional method Haarla employs. Small melodic lines fall around a harmonic idea and gently, quietly, and doggedly pursue a place that exists where all the instruments intersect -- a saxophone line here, a trumpet line there, decorated by the bass and brushes on cymbals as Haarla connects the dots and makes something appear. "Waterworn Rocks" begins with overdubbed horns in the front line playing a dirge-like melody and is introduced by extended chords and Christensen's skeletal drumming before Haarla moves into her solo, played in the middle register seeking inner space. "Light in the Sadness" begins on a wispy fragment and keeps that figure at the center of the piece even as it builds out with elongated lines from the horns, adding dimension and fullness to the body of the tune. This is truly moving music that moves with the suggestive, imagistic quality of great poetry along with the fluid motion of a melting glacier, the authority of a spiritual master, and the openness of a child in springtime. This is music of rebirth and resurrection; it should be heard by anyone interested in the quality and wonder of a music that knows no boundaries.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek