Jürg Wickihalder European Quartet

Intakt CD 194

By Ken Waxman

Bonding over a mutual appreciation for the music of Thelonious Monk and Steve Lacy Irène Schweizer, Switzerland’s most accomplished improvising pianist, and Jürg Wickihalder, a young Swiss soprano saxophonist, have played together regularly over the past decade. This fine quartet session is the result of their mutual respect and accommodation.

Seconded by steadfast Swiss bassist Fabian Gisler and subtle and inventive German drummer Michael Griener, both of whom are closer to Wickihalder’s than Schweizer’s age, the two cycle though originals by the saxophonist. The front line players’ musical rapport conclusively dissolves their approximately 40 year age difference. Schweizer’s experience means she knew Lacy as a peer, while Wickihalder studied with him. That familiarity on Wickihalder’s part may be the disc’s shortcoming however. There are points at which the sound of his soprano is too close to Lacy’s and not individual enough. Still, the pianist’s presence makes the saxophonist’s playing more adventurous than it was on his first two CDs.

Griener’s skill is another key factor. At points his cymbal slaps, triangle pings and rim shots lighten those junctures when Schweizer’s tremolo keyboard command threaten to overpower the others. Elsewhere his clinks, rolls and ruffs provide a steady foundation on which Wickihalder’s vibrated whistles and multiphonics can soar without profoundly altering the theme isolated in the pianist’s intricate licks. Crucially, Griener sounds a march tempo during the coda to “Triple Rittberger Exercise” otherwise consisting of the pianist and saxophonist’s tossing theme variations at one another.

Key tracks are the brief “6243D (armstand back double somersault 1,5 twists free position)” and the extended and appropriately titled “High Wire Dancer”. As properly timed as a gymnast’s routine, the former gives Schweizer space to interpolate a couple of Monk quotes alongside her pounding and key clipping, while Wickihalder finally transcends Lacy’s influence as peeps and squeaks are succeeded by holding a single note for a protracted period. The two connect at the finale to recap the head in picture-perfect fashion.

Symbolically describing an improviser’s skill, “High Wire Dancer” has a safety net in the pianist’s continuous, percussive cascades. Meanwhile the reedist, in acrobat mode, melds double tonguing and reed bites into a horn-shaking, almost-Oriental-sounding ending with a series of discursive squeals and quacks. The climax finds both sets of keys – ivory and metal –playing the head twice, then mutually blending timbres.

Tracks: Triple Rittberger Exercise; Red Light Jumping Friends (dedicated to Irène); Last Jump; 6243D (armstand back double somersault 1,5 twists free position); High Wire Dancer

Personnel: Jürg Wickihalder: soprano saxophone; Irène Schweizer: piano; Fabian Gisler: bass; Michael Griener: drums

—For New York City Jazz Record March 2012