Music

Piano Pioneer Irène Schweizer Flies Again

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On a placid day in late July, the pianist Irène Schweizer combs through her modest Zurich apartment, determined to find something — a bootleg. It’s of a concert she gave in 1960, when she was nineteen, with a septet of fellow Swiss musicians who brazenly called themselves the Modern Jazz Preachers.

When she finally finds it, she pops it in and listens to herself play “Lullaby of Birdland,” swinging and lyrical. It’s not what you immediately associate with Schweizer, who has long been associated with free jazz, especially in Europe, where she was part of the Berlin collective Free Music Production that began in 1968. “I played the whole history of jazz,” she says, “but now everyone thinks I can only play free jazz, and then when they hear the blues, they think, ‘Oh, what is she doing now?’ They can’t understand it, but this is my background. If jazz music never existed, I wouldn’t be a musician.”

Her dozens of recordings — most of them on Zurich’s phenomenal Intakt label, on whose board she resided until last year — make clear just how much she venerates the jazz tradition. In the midst of wide-ranging improvisations, you’ll catch flashes of the past, expertly deployed. Sometimes short flourishes will display the grounded rhythms of pre-war stylings like ragtime, boogie-woogie, or swing, but she’s just as likely to pound out block chords in the manner of McCoy Tyner or the delicate melodic flourishes of a Satie miniature.

The 76-year-old Schweizer, who in person projects warmth and self-effacement, even shyness, entered the jazz world in the early 1960s with three or four strikes against her: She veered, thanks to the influence first of Paul Bley and then of Cecil Taylor, into free jazz (polarizing at best, reviled at worst); she was a woman in one of the most male-dominated artistic arenas; she was a lesbian, something she was always open about; and she was from Switzerland (her last name literally means “Swiss”), a tough sell considering that the country, especially at the time, didn’t exactly strike up images of cool hard-boppers. Originally from Schaffhausen, north of Zurich, along the Rhine in the relative flatland near the German border, she took a steep, untraveled road, and just remained on it for more than fifty years. “It’s true,” says Schweizer of her journey. “I didn’t realize that: I’m a woman, and the only one.”

Schweizer’s single-minded artistic vision is apparent on her brand-new album, Live!, an improvised duo performance with New York–based drummer Joey Baron recorded two years ago at Rote Fabrik, Zurich’s alternative art space born out of the early-1980s student riots. Featuring a dynamic attack that can be ferocious and distinctly percussive (she plays drums herself, though not publicly anymore), then nimble and searching, it’s a testament to the subtle traditionalism that’s always lurked on the margins of her playing.

“I think the influence of real jazz tradition is very strong in Irene,” says Patrik Landolt, the founder and head of Intakt, in the label’s office across town in an industrial quarter. “She had an era of free playing, of emancipation, and today she’s so free she can combine both.”

Landolt started Intakt in 1986, in part to give Schweizer a platform since, he says, “Irene was completely underdocumented.” The label’s first record was Irène Schweizer Live at Taktlos, a Swiss festival she helped organize. The date included George Lewis, Paul Lovens, Günter Sommer, Maggie Nichols, and Joëlle Léandre, the latter two part of her semi-regular, all-female Dada-esqe trio, Les Diaboliques, which started back in the 1970s. When Landolt proudly pulls the original vinyl version from a shelf, he notes how the opening is on the wrong side. “We didn’t know how to do a record,” he says, laughing.

For this recording, she adds to her ongoing partnerships with drummers. (She’s previously recorded with Günter Sommer, Pierre Favre, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille, and Louis Moholo, who she first met in 1963 when he and other South African musicians, Abdullah Ibrahim included, lived in exile in Zurich.) This time she chose to collaborate with Baron, the longtime associate of John Zorn. They knew each other loosely through the free-jazz scene over the years, but she hadn’t seen him play live solo until early in 2015, at a small festival for improvised music in Biel, Switzerland. “He played 45 minutes,” says Schweizer from behind royal-blue-rimmed eyeglasses, “and I never heard such a nice concert. It was so great, and there were some people in the audience who knew me and they said, ‘Irène, this is the drummer you have to play with and do a CD with.’ I said, ‘Of course, I feel that.’ ”

When she approached him, Baron says by phone from Berlin, “It was a big yes. Irène is a legend, and she is a very important figure and I absolutely respect her, a lot. Who wouldn’t be flattered.… And she’s a very, very kind, wonderful human being, and that’s very important to me. And that’s not always the case.”

Given the often lonely path she’s traveled as a rare woman in jazz, it’s impossible to ignore the challenges she’s faced, which continue to this day. “The audiences love her, but not the business,” says Landolt of Schweizer’s limited recognition in New York. “The club owners don’t invite her. She never played the Blue Note, never the Vanguard, never the Jazz Standard.”

When asked if she felt shut out in any way, Schweizer pauses. “Not really,” she says. “I didn’t get this feeling. Sometimes yes, of course. There were machos everywhere at that time, it was normal, but it never bothered me. I was very lucky — all the musicians I played with always had a certain respect for what I did.” Though she does add: “I would be much better known if I was a guy.”

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