Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer is a pioneer. For the past 40 years, she has been a fixture of the European free jazz scene, even if she is not as known as some of her male colleagues. In 2001 she was also the first jazz woman to be featured at the Lucerne Piano Music Festival, a classical event, which has opened its doors to jazz artists over the years (Jacques Loussier, Chick Corea, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Petrucciani, and McCoy Tyner.)
The following interview took place in Lucerne on November 24, 2001, just before Scweizer's performance with longtime collaborator Pierre Favre during the Lucerne fest's "jazz night" that also showcased Jacky Terrasson and Misha Alperin.
AD: What are your feelings about participating in a mostly classical piano festival?
IS: It is very unusual for me. It is almost the first time that I do this. I talked about it with Pierre [Favre] and we are actually very surprised to be invited to play this festival. We don't know how it happened. We don't know who's behind this, who invited us. It is a surprise. Usually, when Pierre and I play duos, we play smaller places like clubs, small theaters and, of course, jazz festivals. This occasion is very special for us. It is even frightening because we prefer to play smaller venues.
AD: We hear a lot of concerns about a shrinking jazz audience. I think that it is interesting to see jazz being offered to a classical audience . . .
IS: It is a good idea to do that. It is necessary. I know a lot of jazz musicians who go listen to classical music or new music, contemporary classical music, whereas I don't see the classical audience or musicians going out to listen to jazz.
AD: Playing a venue like this is also the guarantee of a good piano. I am sure that during your career you have found some pianos that were not up to that standard.
IS: Yes, it's true but it happens less than years ago. Ten, 20 or 30 years ago, I didn't even get a grand piano. I always got an upright piano. Things have changed and here, of course, you can expect a big Steinway grand. It's normal and it's a good thing.
AD: Did you get any formal training in classical music?
IS: Yes, but not at the beginning. I started as a self-taught musician, playing by ear, and straight-away I was interested in jazz. I was fascinated by this music. I had some classical training afterwards during my school days, maybe for five years but not more. At the time, in the '50s and '60s, no jazz school existed, and you couldn't buy any sheet of music. Today, anybody can go to a jazz school and learn how to play like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. But that was not the case when I started. So I had to learn everything by myself listening to records or going to clubs to hear musicians play.
AD: What did you get from your classical training?
IS: I really learned the basics. How to read music, which I still can't do very well. But I don't need it because I don't compose and I don't play from charts.
AD: Have you been influenced by classical music?
IS: Not by what I learned then. But at the end of the '60s and in the early '70s I went to listen to contemporary classical music, new music, like John Cage, Mauricio Kagel, Luciano Berio, all those modern composers. I also listened to a lot of that music on records. I probably got influenced by the sounds they are creating. But for rhythm, I am at home with jazz music. For me, the rhythmical aspect has always been missing from classical music or new music. My background is jazz music, not classical music. This is how I started.
AD: Do you still practice every day?
IS: Not any more. [laughs] I used to practice a lot when I was young of course. I started at the age of 12. Until I reached 40 or 45, I practiced a lot at home all the time. I was also rehearsing with groups and other people. Now, I do play at home but I don't practice in the sense that I don't do exercises or work my technique.
AD: During your career, you have always been interested in playing with drummers. Why?
IS: Because I play drums myself. It is my hobby. I still play occasionally in Zurich with local musicians. It is just an instrument I am very attracted to. I love drummers, so I chose those drummers I have been playing with for thirty years. And I still play with them from time to time. And Pierre is my oldest drummer partner.
AD: You also have a record label, Intakt...
IS: It is not my label. I am only part of it. Actually, I founded it with some other people in Zurich who thought it was necessary. Before, I had made records for FMP in Germany, and the distribution was very bad in Europe. So most people outside of Germany were always asking me, "Have you made any records?" I am sure I made ten or 15 records for FMP but nobody knew about them because the distribution was not good enough. Those people in Zurich thought it was time to have our own label. Since the creation of the label, all my records have been released and produced by Intakt.
AD: Does your role with Intakt involve a lot of work from your part?
IS: Not really. I don't do any administration work but I am more like a consultant as far as choosing the people we want to record.
AD: Through your career, have you seen a change of status for women jazz musicians?
IS: Yes, things are improving because when I started to play professionally, in the early '60s, I was playing at those FMP festivals (Total Music Meetings at the Arts Academy in Berlin) and I was always the only woman instrumentalist. Of course, there were women singers. I was aware of other women instrumentalists like Carla Bley or trombonist Melba Liston, and a few others. In the mid or late '70s, I met some women like Lindsay Cooper in London, Joelle Leandre in France, so it improved, but the percentage is still very very low. And if you look at the big festivals, there are probably one or two% of women in the program.
AD: What do you think it would take for this situation to change?
IS: I don't know. They are just not enough women in the straight-ahead jazz festivals and the organizers always invite the same people. In the States, there have been quite a few more in the past ten or 15 years: Myra Melford, Marilyn Crispell who's almost my generation though a little bit younger, Susie Ibarra whom I like very much. But that's not enough and I can't explain to you why. It's a question that is always brought up and I don't feel competent to answer it.
AD: What is the situation of jazz in Switzerland?
IS: It depends on what city. In Zurich, we have a big local scene with all types of jazz. There are restaurants, clubs, theaters, and bars where you can play. It is quite fine. Basel or Bern are doing ok also. For a small country, we have quite a few musicians.
AD: Two days ago, I got the chance to visit the jazz school in Lucerne where Pierre Favre teaches. Do you also teach?
IS: Not really. At the present time I don't. But there were periods when I had students. I have never taught in a music school. It was private lessons. But I am not looking for students because I am self-taught and I have no method. For me, it is very difficult to teach and I can only teach people who already know how to play. If they have some specific questions, it is fine but sometimes I get phone calls from parents asking me, "Oh, my son or daughter would like to learn to play like Keith Jarrett, can you teach him or her?" And I usually say, "No, thank you." There are plenty of jazz schools where you can learn all this if that's what you're looking for. I have never been to keen on teaching. I know that some people tell me that I have so much to say and should pass on my knowledge to someone else. I don't feel at ease when I teach. About two years ago, the Bern Conservatory asked me to do a workshop and I turned their offer down. But they kept on asking me and I finally agreed. So, it was a one-week workshop with 12 musicians, all kinds of instruments. We played a lot together during that week but after one week I couldn't play any more. I cannot feel that I am the teacher and that I am above the students. It is not my business. Pierre can do it. He is a master teacher.
AD: One of your latest collaborations is with a saxophonist named Co Streiff. I am sure that most American jazz fans are not familiar with this musician. Can you tell us about him and how your association started?
IS: Co Streiff is a she. She's a woman.
AD: This just shows you how unfamiliar I am with this musician . . .
IS: Her name is Cornelia Streiff. Co is short for Cornelia. I have been playing with her for 15 years. Compared to me she's young, but she's 42 now. She's started to play the flute when she was really young but she now plays the alto and soprano saxophones. At the end of the '80s, I started to play with her in a quartet. At the beginning of the '90s we had another quartet where I played the drums. Unexpected Congeniality was the name of the band which also had a trumpet and a bass player. We only played Ornette Coleman tunes, the early Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.
AD: Was this quartet ever documented?
IS: No. We must have one tape from a radio concert. That's all. Then, after a while the quartet broke up and in 1995 we started to play as a duo piano/saxophone. We just produced the record and it came out a month ago. It is our first CD together, but we play a lot in Switzerland and Germany.
AD: Is she Swiss?
IS: Yes, she's from Zurich also.
AD: Do you have any other projects going on?
IS: I play a lot in Zurich with local musicians but they are not known outside of Switzerland. I have this duo with Pierre and I often play with Han Bennink. We just made a really nice concert in Bern with Han Bennink and Connie Bauer, a trombone player from ex-East Germany. And I still work with this all-woman group, Les Diaboliques, with Maggie Nicols and Joelle Leandre. Occasionally, I have this duo with Evan Parker, and Barry Guy joins us from time to time.
AD: Since you mentioned Barry Guy, are you still working with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra?
IS: No. We had this piece called "Theoria" but we don't play it at the moment. The last time I played with the LJCO was in France in 1996 or 1997. But I play occasionally with smaller groups. For instance, Barry recently invited me to Scandinavia at a Festival with a Scandinavian drummer.
Alain Drouot broadcasts a broad range of new music on WNUR-FM, Evanston IL.
C o m m e n t s
irene schweizer 1 of 2 archer October 23, 07
just discovered this phenomenal musician. thanks for the interview.