All About Jazz New York, November, 2007



By Clifford Allen

One of the leading exponents of free piano playing in
Europe from the late ‘60s onward, the Swiss-born
Irene Schweizer occupied a somewhat lonely place in
European free improvisation. Renowned as a soloist
and for her duets with many of today’s most
innovative percussionists, she also co-led the Feminist
Improvising Group in the ‘80s and the trio Les
Diaboliques (with bassist Joëlle Léandre and vocalist
Maggie Nicols) since the ‘90s. Her highly percussive
and volcanic improvisations, coupled with a penchant
for playing inside the piano, preparing the instrument
and using other aleatory techniques, has made her a
wide-palette partner for free musicians from Radu
Malfatti to Fred Anderson.

Schweizer was born Jul. 2nd, 1941 in the Rhine
valley near the border with Germany. “My parents
owned a restaurant in Shaffhausen, Switzerland. My
older sister played classical piano; she took lessons
and I started to play accordion at the age of eight or
nine. Later on my father gave me a Christmas present
of a piano-accordion. So I started to play this pianoaccordion but it didn’t fit; it was too big for me and I
didn’t like to play the piano in this funny way!” She
switched to piano soon after as the family apartment
took on a vibrant life after the war: “We had a lot of
dance evenings where big bands came to play.”

In the ‘50s, falling in love with the cool-jazz and
Dixieland bands that rehearsed in their apartment, the
primarily self-taught Schweizer began sitting in
locally and soon had her own groups. “We had a
quintet when I was 18 years old. We were called The
Crazy Stokers [laughs] and we were a mainstream
group - not really Dixieland, but on the edge of
modern jazz. With this quintet we played a lot in
Switzerland, in Shaffhausen and in other places…
Later on I had a group called the Modern Jazz
Preachers; we were copying Horace Silver and Art
Blakey’s Jazz Messengers - those were our idols.”

Her trio of the ‘60s, though documented only on
an LP issued in the ‘80s on FMP, The Early Tapes and as
the rhythm section for Manfred Schoof and Barney
Wilen on the Jazz Meets India LP (SABA, 1967), was
Schweizer’s entrée into free jazz. “I took home a record
of Paul Bley and thought ‘oh my god, this is such great
music!’ We started to slowly come off the functional
harmonics of the time period and when we rehearsed,
during one rehearsal we just realized we had no time
anymore and no theme and we just played - that was
the beginning of free improvising for us.” With bassist
Uli Trepte and drummer Mani Neumeier, the trio
toured in Europe until dissolving around 1968.

Shortly after, she met drummer Pierre Favre at
Montreux and they began rehearsing in the Paiste
factory where he worked as a drum technician
(Schweizer became his secretary). “We had a room
with a big grand piano and a lot of drums and cymbals
all over and every day we played together. So the
Pierre Favre Trio was born.” With bassists George
Mraz or Peter Kowald and later adding saxophonists
Evan Parker, Trevor Watts or Gerd Dudek or
trumpeter/guitarist Jürgen Grau, the group was very
active on the European scene into the early ‘70s. With
Kowald, they cut the blueprint for an explosively
deconstructed piano-bass-drums trio, Santana, for
their own PIP label in 1968. That same year, Wergo
released the quartet version (with Evan Parker) on LP,
a steamrolling blast of Western European energy that
was in direct homage to the Coltrane Quartet, but with
its own geographic fires being lit.

But playing in the hardcore free jazz scene of ‘70s
Europe was difficult for a woman, even one whose
music fit in very well with the ‘boys’ club’ of European
free music: “I was suffering sometimes; they all
respected what I did as a musician and I could feel
that. But I had to cope with them and sometimes I
didn’t feel like going to the bar and drinking my head
off. I wanted to do other things, but then I was alone.
Musically I never had any problems and sometimes
other female musicians when they played with men,
singers you know, they had problems because
musicians wanted to have more than music! But they
knew they couldn’t do that with me because I’m not
heterosexual, I’m a lesbian. Most of them knew it so
they didn’t try.”

Schweizer found like minds in progressive
English improvisers, vocalist Maggie Nicols and
clarinetist Lindsay Cooper. “Lindsay Cooper came to
Zurich with the Henry Cow group and she came over
to me and asked if I wanted to join an all-women’s
group. I said “oh, but you want to do that in England.
I’m living in Zurich; how will we do it?” She said, “We
want to do it internationally; you come to London and
then we’ll start from there.” So with Maggie and
Lindsay and Anne Marie Roelofs from Holland, the
trombonist, we started this Feminist Improvising
Group. Maggie and Lindsay and me, we were all
involved in the women’s liberation movement you
know. For me it was an experience, because I’d only
been playing with men all the time and there was no
woman I could play with until the late ‘70s.”

The group disbanded, only to be reformed as Les
Diaboliques with Nicols and Léandre - a very
theatrical and wholly improvised trio. “You’d have to
see it - next year there is a DVD coming out of a live
concert. ...People have to see us when we play - it’s
quite a big item and it’s important that people see us
because Maggie is very theatrical and Joëlle is as
well.” Schweizer’s own perseverance has served her
well, though, in the face of a masculine improvising
community that, while improving in the past few
decades, still has a long way to go. She has been a
leading light for improvisers like pianists Marilyn
Crispell and Sylvie Courvoisier, Léandre, Swiss
saxophonist Co Strieff and many other improvising
women. While Schweizer hasn’t been to the States in
seven years, she’s “curious to come back because it’s
been a while and to come to New York and meet a lot
of musicians there. It’s a pity it’s so short!” Hopefully,
the effect of her visit will be felt for years to come. K

Schweizer is at Roulette solo Nov. 12th, 2007

Recommended Listening:
• John Tchicai/Irene Schweizer Group - Willi the Pig
(Willisau Live-Atavistic, 1975)
• Irene Schweizer/Andrew Cyrille - Eponymous
(Intakt, 1988)
• Les Diaboliques - Live at the Rhinefalls (Intakt, 1997)
• Irene Schweizer - Chicago Piano Solo (Intakt, 2000)
• Irene Schweizer/Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake -
Live: Taktlos & Willisau (Intakt, 1998/2004)
• Irene Schweizer - First Choice. Piano Solo KKL Luzern
(Intakt, 2005)



To Irène Schweizer: All Intakt CDs

Biografische Angaben zu Irène Schweizer

Die beste Jazzpianistin Europas im besten Konzertsaal der Welt,» berichtet Ulrich Stock, DIE ZEIT.


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