Schaffhauser Jazzfestival

Schaffhausen, Switzerland
May 21 to 24 2008

Forty-seven years after she left her home town of Shauffchausen, Switzerland for nearby Zürich, pianist Irène Schweizer was back headlining the Schaffhauser Jazz Festival’s most ambitious program ever: performing “Radio Rondo”, a composition by bassist Barry Guy, which featured her and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO).

In its 19th year of showcasing Swiss jazz and improvised music, Schaffhauser expanded its horizons in 2008 with the Schweizer/LJCO summit, which took place in front of a sell-out crowd in the city’s modernist Stadtheater. The evening, which included a solo piano showcase for Schweizer, also emphasized two of the fest’s overall themes: the majority of the most interesting sets included piano; and non-Swiss musicians and motifs adding needed variety to the performances

Solo, Schweizer followed a familiar – for her –discursive path, She was both meditative and Monkish, adjoining short key taps and echoing phases with thick chording, sometimes advanced with elbow prods.

Guy’s new composition, “Radio Rondo” appeared more problematic, with the pianist sometimes inaudible and the 19 musicians seemingly one rehearsal short of smoothing out the piece’s roughest edges. Episodic, the pianist’s ceremonial plinking and plucking often sent notes scurrying every which way, as the reeds shook and shrieked, the brass puffed triplets, percussionists Paul Lytton and Lucas Niggli scattered cross rhythms and bassist Barre Philips thickly double-stopped.

Sometimes Schweizer played with just reed backing; other times just with the brass. Simultaneously the sections traded riffs among themselves, at points recalling the frenzy of Energy music. Measured and functional, Schweizer’s efficient coloration brought a needed simplicity to a piece otherwise characterized by tutti crescendos.

Eventually Schweizer’s spare subtractions were echoed by others, with Niggli miming his accompaniment as he smacked an oversized gong or struck a mammoth bass drum. Veering from spiccato to legato, violinist Phil Wachsmann singly confirmed her approach. By the finale the concentrated power of varied instrumental textures was stretched into multi-hues, engulfing everyone in polyphonic exultation.

If the band seemed hesitant on “Radio Rondo”, then “Harmos”, which the LJCO first recorded in 1989, was a triumph. A longer composition that encompassed unforced swing, it featured Howard Riley – not Schweizer— on piano. Although its theme now sounds as carefully orchestrated as theatre music, upfront improvising wasn’t neglected. Among the stand-outs were frenetic brays from trombonist Johannes Bauer matched with pizzicato styling from Wachsmann; verbal shouts and double-tonguing from baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and watery bubbles and lip smacks from tubaist Per Åke Holmlander.

Cunningly utilizing the antiphonal characteristics of reeds, brass and strings, muted trumpets brushed up against Gustafsson’s spetrofluctuation; while elsewhere, the measured melancholy of Trevor Watts’ alto saxophone enlarged the theme. Eventually, following some characteristic slurping and spitting from trombonist Conrad Bauer and a blues modulation from trumpeter Rich Laughlin, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker’s quicksilver line and the violinist’s sul ponticello expansion preceded another variation on the theme which proceeded contrapuntal recapping of the head.

Smaller ensembles gave greater scope to extended pianism, as distinctive keyboardists demonstrated on subsequent evenings, where concerts took place in the more relaxed setting of the Kulturzentrum Kammgarn performance space. On the final night for example, pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer created a 21st Century take on the classic jazz piano trio. The Lausanne-born pianist used multiple strategies to subtly swing, yet manually choked his instruments internal strings, or advanced rolling low-pitched chords to skirt the expected.

Often he varied his output between overdriven note clusters and minimal chording, exposing hard-handed vamps as effectively as basement-directed runs. His invention was mirrored expertly by the others. The bassist produced thumping reverberations by jamming sticks horizontally among his strings and the drummer dangled a key chain on his drum tops or swiped at them with a cloth to control volume. Ironically Rohrer had been a flashy beat-monger when he worked with a song-oriented funk-fusion band the evening before.

Some improvisations referenced bucolic Ornette Coleman compositions, though Vallon wasn’t above repeating a note cluster for more excitement, or emphasizing the foot-stomping qualities of a tune. Exposing his romantic nature, the pianist made his recasting of Jacques Brel’s “Je Ne Sais Pas” a standout. With Moret plucking thick chords and the drummer lightly bopping his snares and shaking bells, Vallon sweetly and almost too slowly emphasizes the melody, only to quicken the funereal tempo so that variations were audible, helped by sustained soundboard resonations that echoed on top of Rohrer’s hand-drumming.

A similar partnership was exhibited by the In Transit quartet, but its adoption of total improvisation had wider tonal colors, with veteran Jürg Solothurnmann’s alto and soprano saxophones added to piano, bass and drums. Restrained mid-European Jazz, In Transit’s appeal was built on the interplay between Solothurnmann, who has explored folkloric and standard jazz linkages during his career as a musician and broadcaster in Switzerland, and the meditative positioning of American pianist Michael Jefry Stevens

With his performance related as much to sleight-of-hands as locked hands, Stevens picked up the tempo from adagio to andante almost before anyone noticed. By the time Stevens began plucking his instrument’s internal strings, bassist Daniel Studer was rolling a stick along his strings for maximum abrasion and drummer Dieter Ulrich was booting different parts of his kit – including a cowbell – to mark the tempo.

Overcoming Stevens’ pile-driving arpeggios which threaten to tip the set into a modal piano trio showcase, Solothurnmann’s body sways and noisy tongue slaps on soprano, encouraged the pianist to lay out long enough for the saxman to set up an alternative trio modal. Eventually as the bass lines scraped and tick-tock drum rhythms stabilized, saxophonist and pianist worked in double counterpoint to complete the musical circle. Solothurnmann held one long reed note and Stevens chorded consistently to reflect the set’s spacious introduction.

Even more radical restructuring of the piano role had been evident the previous evening on the same stage as Swiss-turned-New York-downtowner, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier showcased her working quintet. Taking centre stage were the strings of American violinist Mark Feldman and French cellist Vincent Courtois, on their periphery were the intelligently-utilized trap set of American Gerald Cleaver and the electronics of Japanese-American Ikue Mori.

Mori’s triggered pulsations were the only electro-acoustic interface displayed at the festival. Even here, her oscillated whooshes, pinball machine-like sizzles plus offside crackles and chirps were really landscaping then major performance components. More germane were the drummer’s contributions. Rumbling, rolling and bouncing, while using brushes more than sticks, Cleaver also produced percussion shakes by manipulating sheets of paper on top of his snares and toms.

With such unobtrusive backing, anticipation resulted while waiting to see how Courvoisier’s karate-chop-like comping or flapping note clusters could distort the violin’s and cello’s round legato tones. Answer for the first tune was a crescendo of flying agitato and staccato string-stops; for the second wailing spiccato. At the same time there was partnership among Feldman, Courtois and the pianist with several motifs reiterated from low-pitched, sul tasto cello line and piano keying or sprightly fiddle sweeps and multiple, high-frequency rolls from Courvoisier.

Much more conventional, pianist Thomas Silvestri’s quintet’s performance the next night – featuring trumpeter Michael Gassmann tenor and soprano saxophonist Ewald Hügle bassist Heiner Merk and exuberant drummer Tony Renold – unexpectedly gained a standing ovation from the crowd, plus garlands of flowers rained down upon the stage. But as liberating as the band’s note-perfect Hard Bop seemed at the time – complete with Latin percussion rhythms, biting saxophone riffs, sharp piano chording and well-modulated trumpet lines – it moved a little too cleanly – like a well-crafted Swiss watch.

Perhaps much of the audience’s enthusiasm stemmed from the placement of the Silvestri five following another of the festival’s missteps, one of a series of lachrymose female singers paired with pop-jazz accompaniment, whose night club-style stances appeared out of place.

Far more affecting vocally was Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni, who performed two midnight shows at the subterranean Haberhuas Kulterklub. Backed by experienced improvisers – Vallon, bassist Bänz Oester and percussionist Norbert Pfammatter, she interpreted songs in her native tongue in performances that resembled lively Middle Eastern dance music – encompassing her variation of belly dancing-Bollywood undulations – or as elongated, chanted folk tales. Although clearly in charge – stopping-and-starting the band with stomping of her bare feet – Duni was adaptable enough to give the trio its instrumental freedom. At one juncture within a complicated formulation that encompassed low-frequency piano chords, a waking bass line and the drummer whacking his hi-hat and popping his snares, she added a talking-and-shouting interpolation that resembled an alto saxophone solo.

—Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #102