The Uncontainable Feeling of Freedom

February 22, 2022

Irène Schweizer – European Jazz and the Politics of Improvisation
By Christian Broecking

Review by Ken Waxman

One of the most significant – if not the most significant – figure in Swiss improvised music, and crucially the first woman to make an impact on European free sounds, pianist Irène Schweizer has been sui generis for years. However, Schweizer, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, would probably downplay all descriptions if her except as a Jazz and improvised music keyboardist and sometime drummer who has followed a unique and idiosyncratic route from the beginning. That’s because she’s a European who quickly transcended her original influences of American and South African Jazz. She’s a self-critical player who has still made many important albums She’s a loner who prefers to collaborate or play in groups. She’s a homebody who travelled the world for her art. She’s someone who prefers a settled, almost bourgeoise lifestyle, yet who has always operated in the midst of hedonistic bohemianism. She’s a politicized Feminist in a country which only allowed women to vote in 1971. Finally she has always been an out lesbian operating for years in a heterosexual sometimes misogamist Jazz atmosphere and one which had few queer women fans.

The late journalist, sociologist and musicologist Christian Broecking sets out to analyze the mass of contradictions in this nearly 500-page volume. To do so he conducted extensive interviews with more than 60 of the pianist’s personal and professional associates as well as Schweizer herself and researched many applicable journals, magazines and books. In an effort to create a fair portrait of Schweizer, warts and all, the author avoids hagiography, But while his musical judgment is sound, he depends on his interviewees’ testimony to sort out the inconsistencies of her life and performances.

Born in 1940 as the middle of three sisters in a Schaffhausen innkeeper’s family, self-directed Schweizer early on discovered and then immersed herself in Jazz and improvised music around the same time as she rejected male-female relationships. Although highly praised for her Swiss variants on mainstream Jazz, she couldn’t be a full-time musician at that time in the country, and also worked part time as a secretary until he was 40. Following a trip to London where she observed many of the first generation of Free Improvisers, exposure to South African players such as The Blue Notes and Dollar Brand and a longtime musical and professional relationship with drummer Pierre Favre, as his secretary at the Paiste cymbal company as well as part of a trio, allowed her unique style to emerge. During the 1960s and 1970s she was always the only woman probing the heights of Energy Music with its most committed stylists including saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Baby Sommer. Working on that circuit of small clubs and experimental music festivals and recording on small labels, her playing was as loud and aggressive as any of the male Free Jazzers around her. She was always an outlier though since she resisted the hard-drinking lifestyle which many of these players, especially the bellicose Germans, seemed to think was part-and parcel of the scene.

Evolution to more lyrical and relaxed playing with more references to the Jazz tradition came about a few years later. This was the same time as the pianist. who had always supported left wing causes – it came out in the 1990s that she had been under observation by the Swiss police for years – found new affiliations and commitments in the burgeoning Women’s Movement in Switzerland and around the world.

This engagement led to Schweizer’s participation in women’s music festival and becoming a member of the Feminist Improvisers Group. This caused fiction as some musicians, most prominently pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, who she had known since the 1960s, questioned why she was working with female musicians who were not only up to her standard but also in his opinion and that of others, could barely play. Although the pianist now sidesteps that question by confining her feminist-improvised music to the Les Diaboliques trio with vocalist Maggie Nicols and bassist Joëlle Léandre, who are acknowledged as superior musicians, a compromise was involved. Many of Broecking’s interviewees also agree that many lesbian members of Schweizer’s audience support her because of her sexuality and are never seen at other creative music events. Since that time as well, Schweizer, whose mercurial personality can sometimes lead to prickly exchanges with others, including her friends and associates, has become more \assertive in her opinions. Meritocracy should dominate any supposed musical shibboleth she feels. She’s now unafraid to express her opinion, whether it’s the success or failure of a concert performance or what music should be heard o\n ;local Jazz radio.

More important to the music and part of her home country’s long overdue recognition of her talent with prizes and rewards, is her involvement in helping to organize festivals for Swiss and international improvisers and involvement in the creation of Intakt, a Swiss record label t. Although her relations with different Swiss festival organizers are cchronicled from both sides in the book, she has been involved in many original, notorious or highly praised concerts in many venue over the years. Her encouragement and coordination of playing spaces in Zürich has serves a dual purpose. It provides her with a place to play her music in her home city for someone who prefers not to travel, but must for her career; and also allows the often-isolated pianist to set up partnerships with a few younger Swiss musicians, most notably saxophonists Co Strieff, Omri Ziegele and Jürg Wickihalder. Not only has Intakt grown to be a 1bel with an international reputation for high quality sounds, but it has also served as the almost exclusive medium for the dissemination for Schweizer music, including reissues. It has also been responsible for organizing recorded celebrations of the pianist’s milestones and releasing a series of notable sessions, including her landmark series of duets with numerous drum masters.

Schweizer’s position as the doyen of Swiss improvised music is now firmly established and her reputation continues to grow. Anyone interested in the many facets of the life and music of this self-critical, modest but assured musician should be drawn to this book. Besides insights into the pianist’s music and life, a large slice of European Jazz and improvised music history over the past six decades is also succinctly told.