By: ANDREY HENKIN
In the realm of '60s European free improvisation, pianist Irene Schweizer inhabited a strange role as one of the few Swiss musicians, one of the even fewer women, and seemingly the only documented lesbian.
These may seem like artificial distinctions, but in a genre dominated by a hyper-masculine German archetype, Schweizer, at least demographically, was very much in the minority.
Her playing, though, made her accepted -- a remarkable synthesis of the entire history of piano, from Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk to Cecil Taylor and Alexander von Schlippenbach. Her style is not typically feminine or recognizably Swiss or even "homosexual" (however that would manifest itself); rather it is a seminal part of the European improvisatory tradition.
During a solo performance as part of a short American tour, at Roulette in Soho on November 12, Schweizer's prodigious technique and amazing amalgamation of disparate styles was on clear display.
The only thing Swiss about the performance was its precision. Like a clockmaker, Schweizer presented four improvisations -- the first two each exactly 15 minutes and the final pair both five. Two brief encores added up to another five minutes and so, with no inter-song banter, the entire set was exactly 45 minutes.
Brief, but when so many free improvisers leave listeners wanting less, Schweizer's restraint was admirable.
During those 45 minutes, the audience was treated to a clinic in the entire history of jazz piano -- not chronologically but integrated organically in the finest tradition of Jaki Byard. What began as a piano fantasy moved into percussive ruminations -- Schweizer has recorded a slew of albums in duo with various drummers - followed by mischievous melodic flittings, all punctuated by occasional footstamps that reverberated through the salon-like atmosphere.
Her second improvisation initially was based in train-like movement that morphed into sections of well-intentioned density alternating with delicate sparseness, much of the harmonic development coming in parallel motion between right and left hands.
The two briefer pieces kept up the distinctiveness. The first occurred entirely within the piano's body, Schweizer plucking strings, hitting them with mallets or scraping them with finger-cymbals, yet still creating a cohesive melodic statement.
The second was the most traditional with allusions made to her earlier influences, yet still intervallically wide and manipulative.
The two encores, Monk's "Oska T" and an improvisation that seemed like a postbop composition, landed the performance smoothly on the runway, referencing some of the earlier emotional shifts while compacting the approach into renderings not inappropriate to a pre-war 78.