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Artist Profiles

Irene Schweizer: Ramifications

By Published: November 27, 2007
Schweizer's affinity with drummers is well-documented; she plays percussion in private and has rehearsed with local musicians in Zurich in the drum chair, but a series of recordings beginning in 1986 for the Intakt label more clearly mark this attraction. "Of course I'm very critical with drummers! [laughs] I really am lucky that I've been able to play with some of the best in Europe, it's really great. I mean I love to play with Han Bennink as a duo, and there we don't need a bassist. It's so obvious! All the CDs I've made are all live concerts, not studio recordings, and we never thought beforehand that we wanted to make an album. They were all live concerts we recorded and Patrik [Landolt], the producer for Intakt Records, had the idea to bring out duo recordings of all the drummers I've worked with over the past thirty years. This was before FMP brought out all those drum duos with Cecil [in 1988]. In addition to Bennink and Favre, she has recorded duets with Andrew Cyrille, Louis Moholo and Gunter "Baby Sommer, as well as a reunion with Mani Neumeier and recently worked with Hamid Drake.

Another fruitful musical relationship began in 1972 with Wuppertal saxophonist Rüdiger Carl, with whom she recorded in various formats for Ogun, FMP, and Hat Hut until the early 1980s. These included the powerful bass-less trios on FMP with Louis Moholo, released on Messer and one-half of the particularly infamous Tuned Boots. "When I play with a horn player and a drummer, of course we can still do it with a bass, but [laughs], you know, it's percussive music! These aggregations culminated in the COWWS quintet, with bassist Jay Oliver, violinist Phillip Wachsmann, and guitarist/noisemaker Stephan Wittwer.

But playing in the hardcore free-jazz scene of 1970s Europe was difficult for a woman, even one whose music fit in very well with the "boys' club of European free music: "I was suffering sometimes; they all respected what I did as a musician, and I could feel that. But I had to cope with them and sometimes I didn't feel like going to the bar and drinking my head off. I wanted to do other things, but then I was alone. Musically I never had any problems, and sometimes other female musicians when they played with men, singers you know, they had problems because musicians wanted to have more than music! But they knew they couldn't do that with me because I'm not heterosexual, I'm a lesbian. Most of them knew it so they didn't try.

Schweizer found like minds in progressive English improvisers, vocalist Maggie Nichols and clarinetist Lindsay Cooper. "Lindsay Cooper came to Zurich with the Henry Cow group, and she came over to me and asked if I wanted to join an all-women's group. I said "Oh, but you want to do that in England. I'm living in Zurich; how will we do it? She said "We want to do it internationally; you come to London and then we'll start from there. So with Maggie and Lindsay and Anne Marie Roelofs from Holland, the trombonist, we started this Feminist Improvising Group. Maggie and Lindsay and me, we were all involved in the women's liberation movement you know. For me it was an experience, because I'd only been playing with men all the time, and there was no woman I could play with until the late 1970s.

Irene Schweizer

The group disbanded, only to be reformed as Les Diaboliques with Nichols and bassist Joelle Lèandre—a very theatrical and wholly improvised trio. "When the group was dying because everybody had other projects, Joelle came to hear us in Paris. Immediately we had good vibrations and she said 'come on and play.' The first trio was with Annick Nozati, the singer [and filmmaker] who died, and later on we formed this trio with Maggie, Joelle and me. We've toured France, Germany, England and Switzerland quite a lot from the '80s and '90s to today.

"So this group has existed over twenty years now, and for me it's still a challenge! It's completely free, always. You'd have to see it—next year there is a DVD coming out of a live concert. We said we don't want to make another CD—we have three now—so the next album has to be a DVD. People have to see us when we play—it's quite a big item, and it's important that people see us because Maggie is very theatrical and Joelle is as well... I learned it from the Dutch musicians, the ICP people and Misha Mengelberg. We were not as stubborn as the Germans [laughs]!

Schweizer's own perseverance has served her well, though, in the face of masculine improvising community that, while improving in the past few decades, still has a long way to go. She has been a leading light for improvisers like pianists Marilyn Crispell and Sylvie Courvoisier, Leandre, Swiss saxophonist Co Strieff, and many other improvising women on the international scene.

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