Where’s Africa
Intakt CD 098

Take your pick: this is either a return to her swing-bop roots for Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer or the weirdest duo session she’s ever made.

That’s because Schweizer, who has had a commitment to the European avant garde since the late 1960s in the company of such heavy hitters as Danish saxist John Tchicai, French bassist Joëlle Léandre and British bassist Barry Guy, here plays an entire program of jazz and pop standards plus one of her own original.

Stranger still, her partner here is the many years younger, turban-wearing Zürich-based alto saxophonist Omri Ziegele, whose recorded forays with over-the-top, often electrified bands like Billiger Bauer and Noisy Minority, are nothing like the cerebral improvisation in which the pianist specializes. Yet she and the saxist have partnered since the late 1990s. WHERE’S AFRICA not only provides listeners a progress report on the duo, but honors the club – actually called Africana – in Zürich’s old town where in earlier years Schweizer would accompany musical visitors from the United States and South Africa.

So how does the session stack up? Well, it’s quite pleasurable, if you put aside Schweizer’s real life identity as a Swiss musical innovator and imagine you’re listening to a session by pianists Don Ewell or Earl Hines trading licks with altoists Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter or Willie Smith. Even though the tunes include five by cornetist Don Cherry, three by Thelonious Monk and a couple with a South African cast, the note- perfect renditions suggest the sort of pre-modern play-anything ethos you’d get from performers of that era. Added to this is a piece (“Suicide Is Painless”) associated with Bill Evans, an obscure Duke Ellington line and a couple of American Songbook standards.

Frankly though, the hardest to swallow – or hear – performances are the two where the saxman decides to sing: Rogers & Hart’s standard “Isn’t It Romantic” and the traditional South African piece “Ntyilo, Ntyilo” with his own lyrics. Confidence may be everything on stage, but when Ziegele unveils his speak-sing routine that makes Chet Baker’s vocals sound like Frank Sinatra’s, the fact that cork in a saxophone is the same substance used as a stopper in a wine bottle easily comes to mind.

Ignoring or shuddering at those two tracks, you’re left with 13 others in the three and four minute range that subtly signify a night at an ever-so-hip supper club. The musicians play so as to not ruffle the composure of the patrons, but display technical dexterity for the cognoscenti. Rhythmic kwela echoes in the duo’s version of Cherry’s “Togetherness One/Part II”, and in places on the pianist’s original, “Bleu Foncé”, where she sounds like a harder-edged Evans playing “All Blues” confirm this dual identity. As for Ziegele, his drifting tone – that occasionally works its way forward from the 1940s to take on echoes of Cannonball Adderley’s horizontal playing – fits hand-in-glove with Schweizer’s translucent stride-like arpeggios.

A different view of the pianist which may appeal to those who don’t know her earlier work, WHERE’S AFRICA, should be approached with caution and an open mind by her longtime fans.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Golden heart 2. Togetherness One/Part I 3. I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ 4. Monk’s Mood 5. Suicide Is Painless 6. Speak Low 7. Isn’t It Romantic 8. Terrestrial Beings 9.Art Deco 10. Togetherness One/Part II 11.Bleu Foncé 12. Jackying 13. Ask Me Now 14. The Bride 15. Ntyilo, Ntyilo

Personnel: Omri Ziegele (alto saxophone and vocals); Irène Schweizer (piano)