Wilde Señoritas and Hexensabbat
Intakt CD 071

Listening intently to Irène Schweizer’s first two solo piano session a quarter century after they were recorded should put to rest the canard that’s she’s the “female Cecil Taylor” once and for all.

Certainly she plays speedy, non-mainstream piano with unmatched ferocity. But that’s how she evolved her conception of a non-impressionistic keyboard style. Besides that, her rhythmic sense and inside-the-piano intrusions seem to have little in common with Taylor’s American sensibility. They’re more in line with what was then contemporary European New music.

More to the point, isn’t it about time to stop describing women in any profession as the “female” anything? Maybe the correct way to view this two-CD set is to hear it as a major statement by the female Irène Schweizer.

WILDE SEÑORITAS and HEXENSABBAT (“Witches’ Sabbath”) released at the height of flowering feminism, had titles that were profoundly symbolic at the time as well. Politically active women cheered the pianist’s musical audacity during the 1976 Berlin concert that makes up the first disc. Schweizer, who had already gone (wo) mano-a-mano with tough improvisers like saxophonists Evan Parker and John Tchicai, was definitely committed to the Women’s Movement, but was an improviser first and foremost. She had already been politically active in a musicians’ co-op, and was no feminist separatist. Most of her playing partners were men, and she admits she was influenced by the harmonies, tonal quality and phrasing of pianist Paul Bley, who it must be admitted often featured compositions by Carla Bley and Annette Peacock.

Behind the keyboard, Schweizer was her own woman however. On the first disc’s title track, for instance, she highlights individual notes as well as pleasant sub themes, leavens the presentation with some repeated European arpeggios and stride piano suggestions. Yet her gospelly chord clusters aren’t there to show off inhuman speed or brute strength.

“Saitengebilde (Last Part to Dudu)”, which translates as “Swing Structure” is even more illustrative. Unlike Taylor, she consecrates part of the tune to distilling sounds from inside the instrument with mallets and balls on the strings, creating some harp-like glissandos. She alternates her distinctive rubato inside-piano-percussion with linear playing on the keys, featuring circular note clusters and plenty of wide intervals in the treble clef. Here, if anyone, she sounds like Thelonious Monk, expanding on the mechanics of one of his own compositions. The swing structure comes in the last five or so minutes as she salutes the late South African alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, by quoting his tune “Angel”. Having seen improvisers like Pukwana and pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim), perform their mixture of jazz and Township jive early on in Zürich, she demonstrates here how its beat and song-like quality gave her a difference reference point than American jazz.

A combination of live and studio pieces from 1977, HEXENSABBAT, which like its companion CD was initially released on FMP, but has been out-of-print for about a decade, finds her able to express her individuality in the six shorter pieces in the later part of the disc.

Greeted with (radical feminist-led?) cheers and screams when she appears on stage, the pianist again rotates her presentation between sections of flowering European classicism to periods when it sounds as if she’s panning for gold inside the instrument. At times it appears as if we’re hearing a duet between keyboard expression on one side and crashing cymbals and balls percussively flung onto the copper and steel strings on the other. “Rapunzel... Rapunzel...!” with its double title, is perfect for a tune where she appears to be playing a four-handed duet with herself from either size of the keyboard, and which ends with a speedy syncopated ragtime feel.

These duets take an even more unique form on the shorter “Monkey Woman” and “Baba-Rum”. But here the pairing is for what sounds like a mini-concerto of keyboard moves and clog dancing. Clinks and runs characterize the piano playing, while lid banging or floor stomps take the other roles. Once it even appears as if doorstopper vibrations have been added to the presentation. Earlier, on “Chabis”, she seems to be stretching out glissandos with her right hand while her left plays a sort of eight to the bar boogie woogie.

Folks looking for the roots of Schweizer’s mature style as well as some fine music will easily find it on this set.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Wilde: 1. Wilde Señoritas 2. Saitengebilde (Last Part to Dudu) Hexensabbat: 1. Hexensabbat 2. Rapunzel... Rapunzel...! 3. Chabis 4. Choix mixed 5. Dykes on Bykes 6. Lavender Valse 7. Monkey Woman 8. Baba-Rum

Personnel: Irène Schweizer (piano)