Irène Schweizer : musical alchemist


Irène Schweizer, laureate of the Swiss Grand Award of Music 2018, is celebrated for her perseverance and her musical road less travelled.

Christian Steulet - 2018-05-18
Irène Schweizer : musical alchemist - Irène Schweizer ©F. Pfeffer
Irène Schweizer ©F. Pfeffer
Irène Schweizer : musical alchemist - Pierre Favre & Irène Schweizer
Pierre Favre & Irène Schweizer
Irène Schweizer : musical alchemist - Irène Schweizer ©F. Pfeffer
Irène Schweizer ©F. Pfeffer


        mercurial miracle

liquid fire

        moving phases of the moon

earthed and inspired


creative contradictions

        of continuity and change

in space and trough time

        where different universal

rhythms and rhyme

Song by Maggie Nichols dedicated to Irene Schweizer



After a linguistic stay in London in the spring of 1963, Irene Schweizer returned to Zurich to complete her jazz training and discovered the Café Africana where a group of musicians organised concerts and jam sessions. She played in a trio, inspired by Art Blakey and Horace Silver, but it was with the Modern Jazz Preachers septet that she won the Zurich Jazz Festival prize in 1964. It was already obvious that she would devote her life to music as a live performance, as opposed to programmed music or, even worse, music limited to a specific context, and certainly not music as a taught subject.

She learned jazz by heart during the 1950s. Back then, there were no schools or reliable sheet music. Enthusiasts feasted on records, concerts or a handful of radio shows. The qualities of the self-taught amateur had its own advantages however, and this is how Irene managed to work as a secretary by day while leading the life of reluctant artist heeding the call of the musical sirens.


A working life in the form of musical manifesto

On 29th August 2004, forty years later, Irène Schweizer got on stage at the Willisau Jazz Festival with two friends from Chicago, saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Hamid Drake. From start to finish during this legendary concert, it is she who set the tone, provoked and launched her partners into unfamiliar territory (as documented in the film by Gita Gsell).

She decided to devote herself fully to music over ten years ago, putting an end to all the sideline jobs and badly organised tours. Recognition by the jazz fraternity on both sides of the Atlantic led to more public awards, such as that of the city of Zurich in 1991.

At Café Africana, Irene Schweizer discovered the music of a handful of South African émigrés, such as Dollar Brand, followed by Chris McGregor and the Blues Notes of Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo. Emancipated from the American repertoire, they played their own compositions. It was as if jazz did not necessarily have to pass through New Orleans and New York. The opportunity to play uncompromising music was still a rare thing among the Swiss, so she left Switzerland in 1966 with her two partners, Ueli Trepte and Mani Neumaier, to join the European jazz circuit where other approaches to improvisation were simmering.

This initiatory journey, à la Jack Kerouac, helped her discover the music of Cecil Taylor and opened the doors onto the Berlin jazz scene. It was a time of rebellion with some musicians violently rejecting the models of the past. For Irene Schweizer, however, the manifesto remained musical and non-politicized: tired of the usual harmonic and rhythmic models, she got involved in new musical styles and then returned to Switzerland to found with the drummer Pierre Favre and the bassists Peter Kowald and Leon Francioli one of the trios that would go on to play an important role on the European improvised music scene.

Irène Schweizer & Pierre Favre, 2012 © Manuel Wagner


An artistic career and faultless commitment

This was when those who had dreamed of big changes coming out of the 1968 revolts were disappointed. Irene Schweizer fought her revolution quietly and organized herself among her peers, because it was time for collectives to engage in developing new musical scenes. In Berlin, she recorded her first solo piano album at "Free Music Production"; in Zurich, she participated in "Modern Jazz Zürich" and the founding of "Werkstatt für Improvisierte Musik", showing her solidarity with a new generation of musicians.

She also got musically involved in the promotion of women, especially in the "Feminist Improvising Group" with Lindsay Cooper, Sally Potter, Joelle Leandre and Maggie Nichols. She then became one of the linchpins of Intakt Records, the label that has documented, among other things, her artistic career. Since then, she has multiplied her collaborations and exchanges in a constant state of musical expansion – for example, the discovery of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, representative of a new important phase.

© Marcus Maida


Solo or duo

The consensus is that this process has resulted in a heterogeneous music whose variety of influences is representative of a specific dramaturgy. In fact, one immediately recognizes her piano playing as both percussive and inspired. It is precisely in the format of solo and duo – (the latter much preferred by drummers since the drums are her second instrument) - that Irene Schweizer stands out thanks to her particular musical alchemy.

She has the gift of integrating all influences and encounters into a synthesis that suggests a remarkable work of memory. She is at times annoyed at being, still today, likened to a "free" musician, as if she had shut herself away in a single aesthetic. In reality, Irene also plays themes, whether they are those of a historical repertoire or those that are part of her inner musical score. She does so with an eloquence devoid of chatter, as well as a sense of form and story, all which demand listening and admiration.


Book: Christian Broecking, "Diese unbändiges Gefühl der Freiheit - Irène Schweizer - Jazz Avantgarde, Politik"

Film: Gita Gsell, "Irène Schweizer" (Intakt DVD 2005)

Discography and portrait on Intakt records

More about the Swiss Music Prize