Finnish people are used to long winter nights. This intelligent work for jazz quintet and symphony orchestra describes the struggle between darkness and light, and depicts the ‘before dawn’ time from Finland to Gethsemane.
Label: ECM Records
Time: 4 tracks / 66 mins
Jazz quintet and symphony orchestra is a rare combination, but it does work. Here, the orchestra acts almost as a keys player in a rock band: as an intrinsic part of the operation that can support with backing washes, interplay with other members of the band, or feature up front.
In her liner notes, pianist/harpist Haarla says that the work - recorded both at its premiere and at sessions over the following days - “describes the struggle between darkness and light. It depicts our earthly pilgrimage through sufferings by overcoming difficulties and achieving the tranquillity of mind in the end. We receive redemption through the Light.”
There are not clearly defined sections for jazz quintet and orchestra. They both rise and fall flowingly. Like fighters wrestling on the ground, first one is on top and then the other. Sometimes they are embroiled together, with limbs all over the place.
The disc opens with “Songbird Chapel” – dedicated to her recently decreased opera singer mother – which is a slow and powerful piece based around the tension of two themes: one an engaging melody, the other a sustained rising two-note pattern that comes and goes. It seems to reflect Haarle experiencing both love for her mother and sadness at her loss.
Haarle’s harp sets it in motion, and almost immediately the orchestra starts its theme, slowly giving way to the fine saxophonist Trygve Seim. After five minutes, the two-note pattern begins, gently swelling until it is almost tumultuous, before falling away and then threatening again. It is pieces like this that make the first half primarily a classical work, the jazz quintet the less striking partner.
The more static “Persevering with Winter” begins with an extended, almost ambient, quiet spell before its grand, sweeping orchestral section appears, cinematic in its striking impact. This gives way to a dissonance before the orchestral section resumes and closes.
The second half opens quietly with more influence from the quintet, who each have their moments. Haarle’s slow, moody pieces do not make it easy for a rhythm section to find a place and she gives bassist Ulf Krokfors a brief solo spot in “...and the Darkness has Not Overcome It...” Trumpet takes over afterwards, but although the quintet members have their spells, it feels less like jazz and more like noodling with jazz instruments.
Narrative makes the title track perhaps the most interesting, and succeeds as much as the opener’s interweaving themes. Continuing in quiet mode from the previous piece, it traces the Passion from Gethsemane through to Easter Monday. A growing melancholy breaks for hints of menace that turn dramatic. Then (spoiler alert) dawn breaks.
Perhaps with an overarching theme of struggle, the music will always have an element of discomfort. This is a fine, intelligent work generally, and one that grows in stature with repeated plays, but one I appreciated more with my head than my heart – and with the spiritual themes, I was hoping for a deeper connection.
As a scripted orchestral work, there was less free, heartfelt expression than I wished for from the quintet and the nuanced melodies require some investment by the listener; but those who approach this with more of a modern classical heart and less of a jazz one can certainly add another half a tock.