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Christoph Irniger's Open City: Retracing The Tenor's Evolution On Intakt Records

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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A sound poet of sorts, Swiss tenor saxophonist Christoph Irniger has gained quite a reputation for his lyrical tone and creative penmanship, more often than not responsible for the majority of the memorable repertoire he records and performs. The poetic nature of his music is owed not only to the artists that have influenced him over time, but also to the life events that inspire his musical creativity and the things that surround him in everyday life, such as his home, Lake Zurich, the mountains, family, travelling or even just people in general. As for his understanding of jazz music, Irniger explains: "Jazz, for me, is that music, which processes the music of its time. It's more about how you play rather than what."

After his studies in Arts Music Pedagogy and Arts Performance Jazz in Zurich and Lucerne respectively, Irniger spent much time absorbing the jazz scenes of Berlin and New York, coming across peers, mentors and musical idols alike, among them Dave Liebman, Mark Turner, Dave Douglas and Joey Baron. He continues to frequent the States often and sees the visits as opportunities to refocus his musical direction and soak up the energy of the city and the people. Meanwhile, the saxophonist has performed and recorded with a variety of international jazz luminaries, such as drummer Nasheet Waits, who features in Irniger's modern jazz formation NoReduce, releasing the album Jaywalkin' (NWog) in 2012. But even before turning into an international collaborator, Irniger cultivated a diverse array of musical outlets in his home country, such as the Swiss Prog-Rock outfit Cowboys From Hell, whose name being borrowed from the thrash/groove metal group Pantera's hit-song may be something of an indication towards the eclecticism in which the trio excels.

Besides that, the saxophonist's musings for the most part keep to acoustic settings and more traditional definitions of jazz. Since 2013, Irniger has found his home with the Swiss label Intakt records, where the saxophonist releases the entire scope of his versatile musical persona by way of two formations. He divides a certain dichotomy between textural density and lyrical directness across his two main outlets, the band Pilgrim, featuring Dave Gisler, Stefan Aeby, Raffaele Bossard and Michi Stulz on the one hand and his trio featuring Ziv Ravitz on drums and again bassist Raffaele Bossard on the other. The latter's newest record Open City (2020) furthermore invites guests Loren Stillman and Nils Wogram to join the trio in pithy interplay and subtle sound-etchings. However, in order to best understand Irniger's collaborations and the musical evolution that has led up to his newest album, it makes sense to present his Intakt catalogue, album for album and with annotations by the saxophonist himself.

Christoph Irniger Trio
Gowanus Canal
Intakt Records
2013

Irniger's first effort in his trio collaboration with Ravitz and Bossard draws the listener in with its immediate melodic appeal and at no cost of music intricacy—The Swiss journalist and writer Peter Haffner describing the songs on the album as "tone poems which reveal that a catchy melody and complex sound worlds aren't mutually exclusive but together can really come into their own."

The opening title-cut takes the immediate notion to the next level and could trick the listener into expecting nothing but simple structures, whimsical themes and rhythmical gimmicks for the remainder of the album. It's a satirical offering which sets the mood for a program filled with sonic curveballs, tight interplay and lyrical elegance. A wholesome trinity, where each part plays an essential and independently leading role, the trio navigates from swift straight shooters like "Airplane Mode" or "Burnout" through playful percussive interaction as presented on "Hello Africa (for Luca)" all the way to utterly unironic beauty as heard on the gently ruminating "Schattenspiel," which sees the entire dynamic scope of each trio member quietly blossom as a whole.

Improvisation is born from structure on this Intakt debut, establishing the main traits of the methodology that will draw through the saxophonist's work up to today, straight from the start. At the same time, Irniger's music on Gowanus Canal, or elsewhere, can't be defined merely based on a few main characteristics— be they compositional or in regard to his playing. As with most musicians, his process is more complex and nuanced than that, resembling a matrix of parameters, some tangible and others too personal and unique to grasp. A tradition of be-bop, free jazz and more recent, more contemporary melodic and harmonic designs are interwoven and reconstructed through this trio's singular imagination, which doesn't only hail from Irniger's pen, but finds strong compositional contributions from Bossard, too.

Christoph Irniger: "Gowanus Canal was special, because it very unexpectedly became my first recording over at Intakt Records and thereby significantly reinforced my status as a bandleader and gave my reputation as a leader a boost. The idea to record with Raffaele and Ziv originated from a session in New York, and I hadn't initially planned to take the lead. At the end that was merely a pragmatic decision, owing to the bulk of compositional material being mine and no one else wanting to take care of the administrative tasks that come with organizing a trio."

Christoph Irniger Pilgrim
Italian Circus Story
Intakt Records
2014

Irniger founded the All-Swiss combo Pilgrim back in 2010, shortly after which the band recorded and only a year later released its debut record Mt. Tongariro (Between The Lines, 2011). In a way, what the group presented on their debut album can be regarded as the exact opposite to the sound Irniger would pursue with his trio only a year later. The line between notated music and improvisation couldn't be finer, as the quintet blends spontaneous creation with composition in extended conversations, marked by abstract soundscapes, ambient textures and performances that trade lyrical wholesomeness for provocative roughness and uneasy dissonance. But where Mt. Tongariro still offered occasional shadows of structure and harmony in a more understated attire— owing to the group still being a guitar-less quartet with Vera Kappeler on piano and Christian Weber on bass, Italian Circus Story sees the quintet going a step further and almost dissolving any idea of pre-composed material. Instead, coherence now seems born out of intuition and instinct.

Resemblance to the New York improvised music scene can't be denied, as Irniger's label-mate, the avant-garde heavy-weight Tim Berne's explorations with his Snakeoil project come to mind when the syncopations, chromatic staircases and altogether deconstructed processes unfold on Pilgrim's Intakt debut. Even the instrumentation bears similarities to Snakeoil, as Gisler's distorted guitar lines conjure sonic storms not unlike David Torn's. But where Snakeoil's densest climaxes turn into rowdy, uncontrolled and almost violent bursts of dark energy, Pilgrim's elaborations tend to remain on the softer side of the spectrum, opting for spacious improvisation over narrow space and breezes of lyricalness over steady fire (although instances of heavy bombardment as revealed on the title track are evidence to the contrary).

Subtler displays of folky consonance like "Back in The Game" alternate with the uncompromising rhythmicality of "Entering The Concert Hall," creating gentle harmonic landscapes along the lines of Bill Frisell in one moment and presenting cutting-edge modern free-jazz in the next. Thematic threads are introduced, fade away and are then picked up again along the way, weaving tapestries with polyphonic ambition as a retro-modern jazz sound along the lines of Wayne Shorter or Eric Dolphy ebbs in and out of the picture. Absolute togetherness defines the collective's interplay over the course of the album, erasing any doubt about the group's exceptional chemistry and paving the way for more, promising joint adventures to come.

Christoph Irniger: "Italian Circus Story is in so far very meaningful, as it's the first recording of Pilgrim with the quintet line-up of today. At this stage we'd had very little experience together as a band and here, similar as with Big Wheel Live later on, I only understood our vision after listening to the album in retrospect, not while recording it. My favorite piece on the record would be "Entering the Concert Hall," which initially had the working title "Wayne"—It was the first composition of mine that was heavily inspired by the current line-up of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. We have several of those compositions, such as "The Kraken" or parts from the title composition or "Crosswinds," off of the album of the same name several years later. Shorter's band is a really important source of inspiration for me."

Christoph Irniger Trio
Octopus
Intakt Records
2015

A rhythm starts defining Irniger's release schedule, steadily alternating Pilgrim's deconstructed appeal with his trio's concise structures and organized melodiousness. On the trio's second outing, the group's interplay has grown tighter, and bass and drums take on a more driven role, setting lightning-fast tunes like "Ocean Avenue" on rhythmic fire. The elevated driven impression correlates with even more compact structures than featured on the debut album, demonstrating several passages where Ravitz, Bossard and Irniger follow each other's every step very closely, on the same beat and in unison or similarly consonant intervals, as prominently exhibited on the opening cut "Air" or "Blue Tips."

In the liner notes of the CD Irniger mentions how he'd been trying "to make the band sound more like a Pop band. The form and melody are always on top and everybody is contributing to that," which would account for the immediate quality of the music. But with more tightness comes the challenge of rendering the seemingly simple structures more intriguing, ideally by means of minimalism. Which in return requires a state-of-the-art rhythm section—and of course Ravitz and Bossard fill the bill. Ravitz' snare work is an engaging entity in the title track, underlining syncopated and vocal bass work with ease, as polymetric structures are evoked by Irniger's breezy melodic figures, seemingly playing in another time entirely at various instances across the song. The constant flow of impulse and reaction slows down on the ballads "Iceland" and "Peace In The End" or during the spontaneous sound collage "Dancin' structure," giving the group and the listener short windows of time to breathe in a virtuoso set that introduces one catchy hook after the other. Subtlety reigns in these patient sketches, weighing tone over form.

Speaking of tone— occasionally Irniger's timbre is reminiscent of John Coltrane's, especially when the Swiss twists and turns around circular progression-based structures like the one making up "Cripple X." Only a couple of sequences across Octopus produce this impression, but it's enough to add to the session's shape and color, which in the end is catchy, traditional, swinging and rhythmically nuanced all at once.

Christoph Irniger: " Octopus is the record which, besides Open City, I've probably listened to most—also because my kids enjoy it a lot and listen to it regularly. Musically, the recording ties to Gowanus Canal and works as a continuation of that album, rather than as its own proper chapter. Many pieces on it were written during my second longer stay in New York, such as "Ocean Avenue," "Blue Tips," "VGO" or "Air," the latter of which is inspired by the Colin Vallon Trio (which, by the way, my kids love listening to as well). I'm often automatically inspired to compose while listening to music, which means that I could point out quite a few cross-references here."

Christoph Irniger Pilgrim
Big Wheel live
Intakt Records
2016

Things really come together on Pilgrim's first live outing. Not your typical live album of rechewing ancient material from past studio efforts on stage, but rather an opportunity to create a completely new album in a setting where each impulse is final, Big Wheel testifies to the ensemble's growth and ability to tell stories and create tension spontaneously but with titbits of design. The music was recorded on various occasions in Ratzeburg, at the A-Trane in Berlin and in Altenburg throughout November 2015, although the alternating locations don't figure on the recording, which is a dynamic and glowing sonic piece of art in itself.

"Entering The Concert Hall" is the only recognizable title here, as it already figured on the above mentioned Italian Circus Story. But the name will be all that one recognizes, because what the bands stirs up over the opener's ten-minute arc is, at most, based off of an idea from the original composition. Instead of a long atmospheric build-up, Irniger and his group interlock in rhythmic asymmetry, shuffling through cues, syncopations and uneven meters as the leader navigates through the maze of actions and reactions with confidence and melodic determination. It's a tight display, as demanding of the listener as of the band itself, whose physical involvement is reflected by the players' calls and exclamations, picked up by the microphones with the same transparency as any instrument and adding to the impression that the listener is sitting right in the middle of it.

Physical performances with rock ambition become deep insights into the group's zesty art of improvisation, channeling everything from '70s Fusion over '60s hard bop with hints of sludge and post-rock in the mix—songs like "Acid" and "The Kraken" sometimes presenting each of these different facets individually over their extensive structures. But more than any of the above-mentioned influences, Big Wheel emphasizes the group's textural qualities, focusing on mindfulness for each other's role in the ensemble sound in order to add the missing elements exactly where they might be needed. "Ending At The District" demonstrates these virtues in a melancholic way, ending on a tasty but straight rock guitar solo, while "Lost In Space" focuses on the abstract amalgamation of sound and pattern.

Christoph Irniger: "The inception, the process itself and also simply the time spent together was most intense with Big Wheel Live. Of all my recordings, this one, together with Open City, really sticks out for me. The album is made up of live recordings from various concerts in 2015. In that year we played many club-concerts with Pilgrim, we were searching for our band sound and had or highs and lows in the process. We had trouble just letting things sit for a while, without judging everything each and every time and I was unsure about what we'd fabricated. When listening back to these concerts however, I now felt a sort of contentment and security with what we were doing, how we were doing it and what came out of it at the end. It was reassuring and thrilling at the same time to discover, that the band had matured over time after all— without us even realizing it, and that we now didn't have to start our musical search from zero anymore. This trust didn't only affect the band, but me, as a musician, on a very personal level, too."

Christoph Irniger Pilgrim
Crosswinds
Intakt Records
2019

Between the group's live statement and third studio album Crosswinds, Irniger kept busy pursuing his musical sound-searching with other projects, most notably as part of the electric trio outfit Cowboys From Hell and in quartet with fellow reedsman Ohad Talmor. The latter collaboration— named Counterpoints, perhaps in allusion to the entangled nature of the saxophonists' interaction— amounted to the swinging post-bop session captured on Subway Lines (Fresh Sound, 2017). Despite the quartet's unconventional interplay, unpredictable structures and experimental arrangements, the album still sounds straight-ahead in comparison to Cowboys From Hell's 2018 sophomore effort Running Man (Double Moon Records). For the trio's smoothly produced second offering is a modern fusion workout that brings to mind current progressive rock acts, or updated versions of old ones, as Robert Fripp's throbbing heaviness with King Crimson is evoked in several instances throughout the set. It's more a rock album than anything else and couldn't stand in stalker contrast to Pilgrim's most unassuming, offbeat and arguably least accessible album Crosswinds.

Titled in reference to their last album, "Big Wheel" kicks things off with a lesson in careful conversation, introducing an ensemble whose chemistry has clearly matured over the years and figures in the subtle crescendo arc of the tune, building up with mellow textures and discreet patterns, established between sparse drum work, a bass constant and sci-fi guitar-scapes. Dissonant and harmonically wholesome at the same time, Stefan Aeby's piano playing sets up the ambiguity which Irniger subsequently confirms with a dramatic yet abstract solo on top of a frantic rhythm section that finally gives in to chaos. It's the kind of organized disarray, only great musicians are capable of coordinating and exercising. It's also the most approachable gesture on the record.

Lyricism is hinted at, hidden in the lush ambient mist of "Luce Obscura"'s dark temperament and the leader's hoarse ruminations, whereas "Point of View" comes in harshly, establishing a hard-hitting syncopated motif shared between sax, piano and distorted guitar in unison. Chromatic patterns and riff-based interaction lead through an ambient clearing and straight into a heavy breakdown, like something from a metal band. Piano chords tumble, fall and bounce off of the floor on the title track, simulating the motion of an object plunging to the ground, bouncing back once or twice and then suddenly disappearing—the absence of another echo or two being almost palpable. Like half of the music in Pilgrim's repertoire, the composition shifts through various speeds as the band establishes themes, samples and textures along the way. Like "Point of View," the ending is a simple broken-down progression, open hi-hat hits and each instrument stressing the same off-beat included—this time around post-rock acts seem like an adequate reference.

Like an essay in unbalance, Crosswind winds down unexpected twists and turns, opposing minimalist sketches like "C major Improvisation" with the rhythmical and melodic immediacy of "Studio Song," before the frantic guitar parts come back into the mix and rough up dissonant displays with underlying melodic aspirations. The same dichotomous structure of "Point of View" and "Crosswinds" graces "Inside," making for another forceful climax that ultimately ends in the quietly simmering "Aeon," concluding the proceedings peacefully but perhaps leaving the listener startled by the bumpy ride.

Christoph Irniger: "Crosswinds is the latest recording of Pilgrim and deals with the ambiguity which you find within most things in life. It deals with different points of views and opinions as well as emotions in regard to specific events and how we deal with that on a personal level. A lot of these thoughts came to me from being on tour together with the band, from travelling, as well as from life as a father and conversations with friends. Like Open City it reflects my inner thoughts and processes these in various episodes and in form of musical pieces."

Christoph Irniger Trio With Loren Stillman Guest Nils Wogram
Open City
Intakt Records
2020

Last, but not least, 2020's Open City sees Irniger rekindling his trio with Ravitz and Bossard. This time around though, their newest effort clearly signals a departure from their earlier work, seeing American reedist Loren Stillman joining Irniger in densely intertwined arrangements with additional guest trombonist Nils Wogram coloring in elaborate harmonies along the edges. More than ever, Irniger's score's find him paying homage to his idols while concocting some of the most intricately wrought pieces of his career, expanding melodic constructs with circular progressions in which each member of the part-trio, part-quartet, part-quintet unfolds freely and autonomously, within the confounds of harmoniousness.

It's hard to listen to "My World" without being reminded of Wayne Shorter's approach to ensemble arranging and writing, as Irniger and Stillman's airy saxophone tones intersect with control and whims, both paradoxically at the same time. The title track, on the other hand, comes crashing out of the musicians with diagonal lines and stop-and-go drive—creating the kind of tidy disorder the likes of Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy pioneered in the '60s, while "Calling" is a straight up love affair with Paul Motian, seeing the trio spinning a catchy call-and-response head around a freely-defined time signature in which Ravitz provokes his band mates with all the mannerisms one has come to love about the late drummer Motian. The three obviously have a blast sharing the center stage and improvising over timeless motifs, worthy of Motian's pen.

At a certain age, many a jazz musician will have eventually composed a ballad simply titled "ballad." Some will cover up their laziness and add a "for" dedication at the end, but we all know it's pretty much the same thing. On Footloose (Savoy, 1963) Paul Bley even went as far as serially numbering his ballads "No.1," "2" and "4," while Tomasz Stanko simply translated his into the Polish "Ballada," as heard on the late trumpet-legend's seminal Litania (ECM, 1997). Both Stanko and Bley come to mind, as Irniger's take on a ballad seemingly grows from nothing, as if forming a complete skeleton all on its own, ruled by genetics, bone for bone, line for line. In this chamber-jazz ambiance the three horns alternate, overlap and complete each other with abstract tensions—The Jimmy Giuffre 3, featuring Bley and Steve Swallow, doesn't seem far-fetched as an adequate reference to this style of interplay.

The album goes on to impress with determined posture, taking the ideas of forbearers and filling their rough templates with original melodies and unique voices. In the process, Stillman and Wogram don't function as passersby along the way, invited to show off their virtuoso abilities in soloistic bliss, but have essential embellishing roles, sometimes harmonic ones other times for textural purposes. "Hot and Humid" picks up where Octopus left off but goes on to replace compact unison melodies with explosions of free jazz. The saxophonists are in a tight embrace with each other throughout "The New Dope," while "Time" allows Wogram more space for lustrous melodic development. "40 Years of an Old Wise Lady," "Mass Media Minion" and "Three Little Birds" have their own musical identities, too, the first being a driven workout for saxophone dualism, the second a cool post-bopish platform for a modern rhythm section and the third a happy and comforting conclusion that gives Irniger and Stillman a chance to blow their goodbyes.

Open City may indeed be Irniger's most accomplished album to date, painting a balanced and complete picture of the saxophonist's versatile musical spirit in the company of illustrious and imaginative sidemen, who continue to grow together to a more and more fascinating unit. At the same time it's only the tip of the iceberg, a crowning achievement on top of a body of work with several remarkable highlights and many more are sure to follow.

Christoph Irniger: "With Open City, more than with Octopus, I really wanted to start a new chapter. I wanted to open up our game and expand the field, have more colors to play around with. At the same time, I definitely didn't want it to be a new band, but have the trio complemented by additional elements and I believe that I was able to achieve this goal through the dramatic arcs of the compositions and the respective arrangements. Another reason why I enjoy this record so much is the fact, that two of my favorite soloists are featured on it and I also find it very accomplished, from a sonic point of view. The recording isn't super-clean but, although being a studio album, has this live-feel to it.

The pieces on the album aren't really connected to each other. They were written at various occasions over several years, deal with different themes and are very different from one another on a conceptual level, too.

The title "Open City" hails from the eponymous novel by writer Teju Cole, because at the time of composing the piece, that's the book I was reading. It's also inspired by jam sessions in New York in 2015, where I was able to play several compositions by other musicians, all with similar structures—basically just made up of two melodic voices in counterpoint (or simply a melody and a bass line). Since there's no harmony and pretty much everything is possible when soloing, the term "Open City" just fit perfectly to my mind. The openness which the composition allows in combination with the inspirational source and the thoughts and memories of New York as well as the context of the novel's storyline (by Teju Cole) are what finally lead to this being the title.

When looking at the entirety of the material we'd recorded I soon was sure, that this piece would give the album its name, too. The piece, its form (an open 11-bar blues) as well as the term "Open City" for me work as a connection, a kit made up of the different chapters on the album. The ideas of down-to-earth-ness (blues) and openness (mentally and conceptually) together make up the point of departure, from where the path leads through the different stories and dreams to oneself, where digressions and unplanned events are part of the process, too—just like with the protagonist (Julius) in the book. At the end it all comes down to a sort of grounded state, but where everything is possible at all times. It's the kit which holds together the different chapters of a story or the stories of a life—or which holds together this record.

The fact that we haven't been able to tour this music yet represents quite an unusual situation. In that sense, the musical journey for this album hasn't really been completed yet and therefore I'm really excited about hopefully finally being able to play the music live in the autumn of 2021."

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