Irčne Schweizer: Vintage and Retrospective

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Most independent recording labels have their bellwether artists, those musicians on the roster central to the label's identity and mission. Hatology has Joe McPhee. Peter Brötzmann is commonly associated with FMP. Tzadik revolves around John Zorn. In the case of Intakt it's Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer. Schweizer has been playing actively for nearly half a century and the last several decades of her career have been faithfully documented on Intakt. Ideally, labels and artists share a reciprocal relationship. It's the charge of the label to act as advocate for the artist and the job of the artist to supply the label with meaningful creative capital. Schweizer's partnership with Intakt represents a model of this sort of mutually sustaining arrangement.

Irène Schweizer
Live at Taktlos
Intakt
1984, reissued 2005

Schweizer's Live at Taktlos—taped in 1984 at the first annual incarnation of the Swiss festival bearing the same name—marked the first LP release on Intakt. Reissued on CD the album presents the pianist in three extremely fertile situations with fellow improvisers from Europe and America. Peter Pfister, most-renowned these days for his impeccable engineering work for Hatology, handled the recording and while the fidelity isn't blemish free it still captures the players with true-to-life sound. The disc's three main pieces accord ample space for extended free improvisation, the longest among them swallowing up a good twenty minutes. "Every Now and Then, a manically-paced match-up of vocalist Maggie Nicols with pianist Lindsay Cooper works as coda. "First Meeting teams Schweizer with trombonist George Lewis for a lengthy extemporization that is startling in its degree of close convergence, so much so that parts, particularly the puckishly tuneful conclusion, sound pre-composed. A wealth of unorthodox patterns and phrases pour forth from both players, often at telegraphic speed, but the whole constructed from these parts never loses a guiding sense of symmetry.

Less easily accessible is the trio of Nicols, Schweizer and Günter Sommer who convene on the enigmatically-titled "Lungs and Legs Willing? Nicols' operatic, largely abstract vocals soar and swoop, leaving pianist and drummer to shape a sequence of ground-swelling collisions, soft and stentorian, that serve as terrestrial counterpoint in a crowded exchange. "Trutznachtigall delivers an even most challenging experience via what on the surface seems the most conventional instrumentation. Bassist Joëlle Lèandre brings her full repertoire of capricious techniques to the event, sawing down tree trunks with her bow, punishing her strings with chest-pounding pizzicato flurries and, if the snapshot in the CD booklet is to be believed, even playing her instrument upside down. Her gruff and often outrageous vocals add to the turbulent atmosphere, veering from banshee wails to romantic cooing and back again. Lovens' percussive idiosyncrasies fit right in, the fractious, but precisely intentional clatter from his kit complimenting Schweizer's frequent forays under her piano's hood to pluck and damper hammered strings. Attaching a play-by-play to all the delirious, irreverent action and reaction ends up a pointless pursuit within mere minutes. A marker for various partnerships that have since made good on their promises tenfold, this music still packs an enjoyable jolt on par with its initial release twenty years ago.

Irène Schweizer
Portrait
Intakt
2005

Portrait attempts the daunting task of distilling Schweizer's 23-album, 20+ year career on Intakt down to a single disc primer. The package is a resounding success, both in terms of listenability and logic, covering her numerous projects and presenting as complete a picture possible within the time allotted. Schweizer has frequently been compared to Cecil Taylor and there are certainly commonalities between the two pianists. Both possess palpably percussive approaches and each has made it a point to align with some of the most influential drummers in free music: Taylor through a string of epochal duets for FMP back in the summer of 1988; Schweizer through a decade-long series matching her with some of the same names. Despite these shared traits Schweizer has long since separated herself from Taylor's shadow. For one thing, she's far friendlier toward melody and musical humor. Taylor's improvisations frequently rely on dense complex clusters and grand tectonic structures. Schweizer's music, particularly over the past ten or so years, is imbued with a more fanciful and less insular feel

The opening solo cut "Sisterhood of Spit supplies a pithy example where a propulsive stride-styled pattern rides playfully across a rolling left hand bass line. Various examples of her conclaves with drummers also bear out the difference. In the company of the mad Dutchman Han Bennink she deconstructs Monk's "Hackensack. Poking around the jaunty theme's angles with stabbing oblique clusters, she soon attacks it wholesale through an effervescent improvisation while Bennink stamps staccato swinging beats beneath. "Verspielte Zeiten, a morsel taken from her '87 encounter with Günter Sommer, is similarly idiosyncratic. Dark pedal-dampened chords spill forth in the opening minutes, soon joined by Sommer's galloping brushed beat in a locomotive give-and-take. The resultant music sounds like the perfect accompaniment for a Fatty Arbuckle silent film with the hero trying to rescue the damsel-in-distress from an escalating chain of unfortunate events. Other face-offs with Pierre Favre and Louis Moholo on "Waltz for Lois and the Dudu Pukwana-scripted "Angel' end up just as entertaining and worthwhile.

Schweizer's more recent associations have included duets with saxophonists and a spot in the absurdist-influenced improv trio with Nicols and Léandre. Whimsy and satire reside in full abundance in the latter ensemble. Evidence unfolds with the two fragments "The Very Last Tango and "Come Along, Charles, where Nicols' clever phonetic imagery laces with the responsive repartee of her partners. Omri Ziegele's dry Konitz-tinged saxophone makes for a surprisingly confluent fit with Schweizer's lush dancing chords on "Blue Foncé while Co Streiff's airy, acerbic approach on alto engenders some of the pianist's most exuberantly adroit playing of the set with "So Oder So. The above Taktlos meeting receives representation in a reprise of the duet with George Lewis. And supplying a tantalizing taste of an anticipated future release there's "Willisau, which matches Schweizer's keys with the Chicagoan dream team of Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake. As if the music weren't enough, the set's slipcase also includes an 80-page lavishly printed booklet that annotates each of Schweizer's releases and includes essays and interviews lifted from original album liners. This stand alone collection offers great value. But where it truly succeeds is in whetting the desire to investigate Schweizer's work in greater detail. In common with the confectionary allure of fine chocolates, it's impossible to purchase and consume just one.

Live at Takltos

Tracks: First Meeting/ Lungs and Legs Willing?/ Trutznachtigall/ Every Now and Then.

Personnel: Irène Schweizer: piano; George Lewis: trombone; Maggie Nicols: voice; Joëlle Léandre: bass; Paul Lovens: drums; Günter Sommer: drums; Lindsay Cooper: piano.

Tracks: First Meeting; Lungs and Legs Willing?; Trutznachtigall; Every Now and Then.

Portrait

Tracks: Sisterhood of Spit; Blue Foncé; Angel; Contours; The Very Last Tango; Waltz for Lois; So Oder So; Verspielte Zeiten; Come Along, Charles; Hüben Ohne Drüben; Hackensack; First Meeting; A Monkish Encore; Willisau.

Personnel: Irène Schweizer: piano; Omri Ziegele: alto saxophone; Louis Moholo: drums; Joëlle Léandre: bass; Maggie Nicols: bass; Pierre Favre: drums; Co Streiff: alto saxophone; Günter Sommer: drums; Han Bennink: drums; George Lewis: trombone; Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone; Hamid Drake: drums.


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