Rite of Strings @ North Sea Jazz 

by Sabine Meijers / iJHF, July 2009 


No less than three harpists were to be heard at the 34th edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, thus giving the harp a central position at this evening called 'Rite of Strings'.  

To those visitors who were cool enough to immerge themselves with harp, our instrument will no longer only be associated with fairy sounds. There was mainstream jazz with the Edmar Castaneda Quartet, avant-garde soundscapes from Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori, and modern acoustic jazz from the Norwegian Iro Haarla and her quintet. 


Edmar Castaneda, had the honour to kick off the evening with a clinic in the NRC Jazz Café. He opened by playing 'Kolibri', a song from his newest cd in which, as he later explained, he combines a traditional Joropo with improvisation. During the clinic he did not only tell about the particularities of his instrument and it's techniques, but also how he came to play with such amazing players as Dave Silliman, Joe Locke, John Scofield and Samuel Torres. As he said, New York, the city where he lives, is where one just meets all these great musicians. During the clinic he is accompanied by his trio member and excellent trombone player Marshall Gilkes; the special balance between the high sounds of the harp and the low of the trombone and the interaction between those two outstanding musicians make them a unique and powerful combination. 


Phantom Orchard is the name of a collaborative project between Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins, two heavyweights on the New York avant-garde scene. They treated their audience on an ambient atmosphere by sculpturing sounds and images. Ikue Mori uses her laptop in combination with a drum computer creating an endless variety of atmospheres that could even exist of harsh sounds with beetles, bodies and colors emerging from the screen. Zeena uses her instrument, a harp, to create multiple digital and analog layers. She attaches all kinds of hard- and software, that allow her to be a sound adventurer reacting on the spur of the moment. 


Pianist, composer and harpist Iro Haarla, covers the audience in whispering and delicate sounds which of course suit the harp well but were also coming from her piano playing: subtle and sensitive, yet exciting. The line up with the quirky Trygve Seim and Mathias Eick on saxophone and trumpet, eminent drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Ulf Krokfors is admittedly a traditional instrumental setting, but Haarla’s approach is one of greater individual expression and interplay, creating a spacious setting for her and her quintet to explore. Haarla started to learn to play the harp at the age of 20, inspired by her husband, Edward Vesale, who needed a harpist who could improvise. Unlike as a pianist and composer, which she studied at Sibelius-Akademie High School in Helsinki, she is an autodidact harpist. When she plays the harp, she plays mostly scales using very long lines. Her playing unfolds a mystical minimal sound adventure accompanied by silk tones on sax and trumpet. A performance so subtle that it makes you hold your breath from time to time. 


Three totally different improvising harpists on stage at one North Sea Jazz festival evening is quite a memorable event. It’s already after twelve when Edmar Castaneda and his full quartet close the night with some beautiful ballads and their unique up tempo high energy Latin jazz. 

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