Known for her innovative approach to jazz, pianist and drummer Irène Schweizer has been playing jazz since the 1950s, when she played drums in Dixieland bands in her native Switzerland. She began recording with top European jazz musicians in the 1960s, focusing mainly on piano. In the mid-1960s she turned to free jazz style as her musical choice, playing with a number of different ensembles, both under her leadership and under the direction of other musicians. In the late 1970s Schweizer founded a women's ensemble called the Feminist Improvising Group, which later became the European Women's Improvising Group. Schweizer is also a founder of the Canaille and Taktlos music festivals, and helped to start the Intakt record label in the mid-1980s. In 2001, she became the first woman jazz musician to play at the Lucerne Piano Music Festival, an event the features mostly classical music.
Schweizer was born on June 2, 1941, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Her father ran a restaurant that hosted dance bands, and Schweizer grew to love the music. She taught herself to play the accordion at the age of eight, playing Swiss folk songs as her first tunes. When she was 12 years old she took up the piano, teaching herself to play boogie and ragtime. She had dropped the accordion in favor of the more versatile piano by the time she was 15 years old.
Not content to go back to playing just one instrument, however, Schweizer began to study the drums. It was the drums that brought Schweizer her first gigs as a musician, and she began to play for Dixieland bands in the mid-1950s. By the time she was 17 years old, Schweizer had become more interested in modern jazz than in the more traditional forms she had been playing. When she was 20 years old, she competed in the Zurich Jazz Festival competition and took home first prize in the piano category.
In 1961 Schweizer decided to seek her fortune abroad, moving to London, England, where she attended the Bournemouth Language School. When her instruction at the school was completed the following year, Schweizer took work as an au pair so that she could remain in London and explore the world of British jazz. She was introduced to the scene by double bass player David Willis. One of her favorite haunts became a jazz club called Ronnie Scott's. The proprietor introduced Schweizer to jazz pianist Eddie Thompson, who provided instruction in modern jazz piano, including stride piano and bebop.
Returning to Switzerland in the fall of 1962, Schweizer made her first recordings in Zurich as a band leader. At the beginning of 1963 she formed a jazz trio in which she played piano with double bass player Uli Trepte and drummer Mani Neumaier. Drawn to playing soul jazz and hard bop, and influenced in part by the music of South Africans playing at the African Jazz Café in Zurich, the group began to develop a name for itself outside of Switzerland.
While playing at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in 1966, Schweizer and her group turned to the style of jazz for which she was to become best known: free improvisation. "We never decided to do it," she later explained to John Fordham of the London Guardian. "It just happened through playing and rehearsing." Schweizer's group made recordings until 1968, working with such artists as tenor saxophone player Alex Rohr, musicians Manfred Schoof and Barney Wilen, and musicians from India such as sitar player and singer Diwan Motihar, tabla player Keshav Sathe, and tambura player Kasan Thakur.
In 1968 Schweizer, having disbanded her own trio, joined that of drummer Pierre Favre. The other member of the group, George Mraz, was later replaced by Peter Kowald. The group became a quartet when it was joined by Evan Parker. Schweizer performed with fellow pianists Fed van Hove and Alex Schlippenbach in 1969, and in 1970 she played at the Deutsches Jazz Festival in Frankfurt with yet another group.
In 1973 Schweizer found a new collaborator in Rüdiger Carl. The two acted as co-leaders for a quartet that made recordings in 1973 and 1974. In 1974 they formed a trio with Louis Moholo. After this time, Schweizer and Carl played together frequently as a duo and formed another quartet with Maarten Altena and Tristan Honsinger. Schweizer went on to perform with numerous other musicians both in the studio and at festivals, before working extensively as a soloist beginning in 1976 with her solo debut at the Willisau Jazz Festival.
Returning to ensemble work in 1977, Schweizer formed the Feminist Improvising Group, or F.I.G. The group's members included Maggie Nichols, Lindsay Cooper, and others. Renamed the European Women's Improvising Group at the beginning of the 1980s, the group included members from all over Europe, and together they played jazz and experimental rock, and engaged in performance art. From this group sprang a trio in the early 1990s called Les Diaboliques, which featured Schweizer, Nichols, and Joëlle Léandre.
In the mid-1980s Schweizer co-founded the Intakt record label. This was a move borne of desperation; she and the other founders of Intakt were having trouble getting wide distribution on their old record labels, and they felt it was time to take distribution of their music into their own hands. During this time Schweizer was also featured in a documentary film called Rising Tones Cross.
In the late 1980s Schweizer made a series of recordings in which she was featured with various drummers, including Moholo, Günter Sommer, Andrew Cyrille, and others. As the decade drew to a close, Schweizer again teamed up with Carl, becoming a member of the Carl-led quintet COWWS.
For the Record . . .
Born on June 2, 1941, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Education: Attended Bournemouth Language School, London, England, 1961-62.
Taught herself to play accordion at age eight, 1949; learned piano at age 12; began playing in Dixieland bands in Zurich, Switzerland, 1950s; took first place in jazz piano competition at the Zurich Jazz Festival, 1961; spent time in London, England, where she learned to play stride and bebop piano, 1961-62; made first recordings as a band leader, Switzerland, 1962; formed a jazz trio, 1963; began to play free jazz, 1966; made recordings with her trio until 1968; played in numerous jazz ensembles both in concert and in the studio, 1960s-70s; played jazz as piano soloist beginning in 1976; co-founded Feminist Improvising Group (later called European Women's Improvising Group), 1977; co-founded Intakt record label, mid-1980s; featured in documentary film Rising Tones Cross, 1984; formed jazz trio Les Diaboliques, early 1990s; performed in piece composed in honor of her 50th birthday, with London Jazz Composers Orchestra, 1991; co-founded and produced Canaille and Taktlos jazz festivals; played in numerous jazz ensembles, 1990s; became first woman jazz player to be featured at Lucerne Piano Music Festival, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Intakt Records, P.O. Box 468, Zurich CH-8024, Switzerland.
Schweizer remained as active as ever throughout the 1990s, playing in various trios and ensembles and continuing to make recordings. In 1991, in honor of her 50th birthday, composer and bassist Barry Guy composed a piece called Theoria that was played by the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. The piece was made into an album of the same name. Recording and performing with a sextet, in duos, and as a soloist through the 1990s, Schweizer has also found time to organize and produce festivals such as Canaille: International Women's Festival of Improvised Music, and the Taktlos Festival. In 1995 she recorded again with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, to make Double Trouble Two. She continues to perform in Zurich jazz clubs and at music festivals around the world, and to play on both her own recordings and on those of other jazz musicians.
Early Tapes, FMP, 1967.
(Contributor) Santana, FMP, 1968.
(Contributor) European Echoes, FMP, 1969; reissued, Unheard Music Series/Altavistic, 2002.
Ramifications, Ogun, 1973.
Goose Pannée, FMP, 1974.
Tuned Boots, FMP, 1975.
(Contributor) Willi the Pig, Willisau, 1975; reissued, Unheard Music Series/Altavistic, 2002.
Wilde Señoritas, FMP, 1976.
(Contributor) Concerts, Caroline, 1976; reissued, East Side Digital, 1995.
Hexensabbat, FMP, 1977.
The Very Centre of Middle Europe, hatHUT, 1978.
(Contributor) Western Culture, Broadcast, 1979; reissued, East Side Digital, 1995, 2002.
Die V-Mann Suite, FMP, 1980.
(Contributor) Topology, hatART, 1981.
Live at Taktlos, Trutznacht Igall, Intakt, 1984.
The Storming of the Winter Palace, Intakt, 1985.
Irène Schweizer & Louis Moholo, Intakt, 1986.
(Contributor) Duos: Europa America Japan, FMP, 1986.
Free Mandela!, Intakt, 1987.
Irène Schweizer & Günter Sommer, Intakt, 1987.
Schweizersommer, Intakt, 1988.
(Contributor) Dix Improvisations Victoriaville 1989, Victo, 1989.
Piano Solo, Vol. 1, Intakt, 1990.
Piano Solo, Vol. 2, Intakt, 1990.
Irène Schweizer & Andrew Cyrille, Intakt, 1990.
Irène Schweizer & Pierre Favre, Intakt, 1990.
European Masters of Improvisation, Captain Trip, 1990.
(Contributor) Overlapping Hands: Eight Segments, FMP, 1990.
(Contributor) Theoria, Intakt, 1991.
Les Diaboliques, Intakt, 1993.
(Contributor) Grooves 'N' Loops, FMP, 1994.
(Contributor) Splitting Image, Intakt, 1994.
Irène Schweizer & Han Bennink, Intakt, 1995.
(Contributor) Violin Music in the Age of Shopping, Intakt, 1995.
Many and One Direction, Intakt, 1996.
(Contributor) Propinquity Zwischenzeitstück Aria, Intakt, 1997.
(Contributor) Virtual Cowws, FMP, 1998.
Chicago Piano Solo, Intakt, 2001.
(Contributor) Twin Lines, Intakt, 2002.
Guardian (London, England), March 21, 1991.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), October 14, 1989, p. A69.
"Irène Schweizer," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 13, 2003).
"Irène Schweizer Talks to Alain Drouot," JazzHouse, http://www.jazzhouse.org/files/drouot1.php3 (November 13, 2003).
"Schweizer, Irène," Grove Music Online, http://www.grovemusic.com (November 13, 2003).
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