The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz

Panorama, Young & upcoming

Jazz and Switzerland have an old love story. Flashbacks and current perspectives.

Franpi Barriaux / Citizen Jazz - 2019-03-07
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Michel Wintsch
Michel Wintsch
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Irène Schweizer @Gerard Tissier
Irène Schweizer @Gerard Tissier
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Colin Vallon ©Jean-Marc Guélat
Colin Vallon ©Jean-Marc Guélat
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Andreas Schaerer & Lucas Niggli @Reto Andreoli
Andreas Schaerer & Lucas Niggli @Reto Andreoli
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Christoph Irniger
Christoph Irniger
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Samuel Blaser & Paul Motian ©Alex Troesch
Samuel Blaser & Paul Motian ©Alex Troesch
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Daniel Humair @Gerard Tissier
Daniel Humair @Gerard Tissier
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Luzia von Wyl @Falk Neumann
Luzia von Wyl @Falk Neumann
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Pierre Favre
Pierre Favre
The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz - Sylvie Courvoisier @Christian Ducasse
Sylvie Courvoisier @Christian Ducasse

It is possible to be a "small" country of just over 8 million people and still be a heavyweight on the jazz scene. Indeed, Switzerland holds a special place as a land of festivals, a haven for artists (especially Anglo-Saxon), renowned conservatories and significant twinnings in many of its cities, and lastly, an abundance of labels that enjoy notable public and private sponsorship. The Swiss Confederation is a pool of talent and important creativity. Geographically situated at the gates of central Europe, it plays a pivotal role on the jazz continent surrounded by Germany, France, Italy and Austria, aggregating the avant-garde as well as the surrounding traditions without exclusiveness. The result is a strong identity that nourishes a vigorous and constantly changing scene. What follows is a quick overview (without being overly encyclopedic) of the vivacity of a country that includes music learning in its constitution.


Swiss jazz is exported to Paris, Berlin, Vienna

Jazz and Switzerland have an old love story. In the 1930s, the saxophonist and bandleader Teddy Stauffer was one of the first Swiss musicians to perform outside the borders of the Confederation. Fleetingly married to the great Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, also a genius inventor to whom we owe the principle of WIFI, he quickly gave up the baton for lemonade and, at the time of his death in 1991, he had become a nightclub owner in Acapulco. But the door to contemporary expression had been opened and Switzerland started exporting its jazzmen & women after the Second World War. 


Daniel Humair ©Gérard Tissier


One of the first was the Basel pianist George Gruntz, who worked in the United States with Dexter Gordon and Don Cherry. He died in 2013, but for over twenty years he was the artistic director of the Berlin JazzFest. MPS Records recently reissued a Live at The Latin Quarter Berlin 1981 of his Concert Jazz Band featuring Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, Jasper Van't Hof and Peter Erskine among others, no less! Born 6 years later, the Geneva drummer Daniel Humair is another precursor. They illustrate the different spheres of linguistic influence: Gruntz found fortune in Berlin, whereas Humair spent the majority of his career in Paris. It was almost 60 years ago that he met up with Eric Dolphy and at the same time created the HUM trio with René Urtreger and Pierre Michelot. The details of his collaborations could be the subject of a separate article. The rhythmist (also an acclaimed pedagogue and talented painter), is undoubtedly one of the Confederation's greatest artists outside of its walls.

Another of these figures, often wrongly categorised as an Austrian jazzman, Matthias Rüegg may well have been the conductor and the creator of the Vienna Art Orchestra but is in fact Zurich-born. Among the young German-speaking generation is the composer and pianist Luzia Von Wyl. His legendary and lavish professional training welcomed many European musicians, as well as Swiss artists by the handful. Among them are the names of Heiri Känzig and Matthieu Michel who we find a few years later alongside the French Jean-Christophe Cholet and the Fribourgeois Marcel Papaux who was on the Altrisuoni label among others. A real school of elegance.


From the Alpine horn to improvised music

Pierre Favre


The drummer Pierre Favre and the pianist Irene Schweizer are more immediately connected to Switzerland, though possibly not to the same degree as Hans Hassler, accordionist who mixes jazz with the musical traditions of his Graubünden region. Worth mentioning is Hans Kennel, a trumpeter and also specialist of the Alpine horn, the artist responsible for Mytha, published twenty years ago, There’s also the bassist and pedagogue Jacques Siron, author of the famous La Partition Intérieure - Jazz et musiques improvisées (1992 - Ed. Outre mesure - Foreword by François Jeanneau, in collaboration with Martial Solal, Jean-Louis Chautemps, JF Jenny-Clark), a central figure between German and French-speaking Switzerland. Favre and Schweizer both play in an old and familiar duo representative of all the excellence of the local scene. In 2014, a Live in Zürich was announced. One of the rare testimonies recorded during their fifty years collaboration. Icon of improvised European music, Schweizer is also a member of the Diaboliques alongside Joëlle Léandre. His rather rough style, very driven by the beat has accompanied other legends of the Free movement from Peter Kowald to Andrew Cyrille passing via his compatriot Urs Leimgruber.


Irène Schweizer @Gerard Tissier


But his relationship with the multi-talented Favre, member of the legendary Michel Chateau Unit (A Chateauvallon, 1972), remains the strongest, reaching beyond Favre’s stunning discography where contemporary music is never far away. This lineage is very much alive in the Confederation. It includes Sylvie Courvoisier, another great Swiss exile to the United States. A family that is as interested in jazz as in the absolute freedom of sounds: she has made Switzerland, especially her German part, a stronghold of European improvisation. A family who also knows how to perpetuate the gesture: Pierre Favre has long been a popular teacher who has hosted in his orchestras, sometimes in large format, many jazz musicians including percussionists. His recent record with his ensemble DrumSight testifies to this. In Switzerland, the drums are an instrument that teachers care about. will quote Norbert Pfammatter, reference of many young improvisers. He is the father of Hans-Peter Pfammatter, a keyboardist who appears in many projects, including those of Manuel Mengis (The Pot).


The American Gerry Hemingway is both a percussionist and a teacher. A long-time resident of Lucerne, he is clearly the inspiration behind some of the younger generation, from Christoph Erb to Samuel Blaser. With Hemingway (and Benoît Delbecq) the trombonist recorded Fourth Landscape. He also collaborates with Swiss artists like Michel Wintsch and Daniel Studer. Hemingway is not the first American to be connected with Switzerland: Irène Aebi, the violinist and singer with Steve Lacy is from Zurich. As for Sidney Bechet or Miles Davis, they remain forever linked to the festivals organized on the edge of Lake Geneva: Geneva firstly in the immediate post-war period, Montreux secondly, where a statue still sits on the shore, not far from Stravinsky hall ... of Freddy Mercury.


Samuel Blaser & Paul Motian ©Alex Troesch


Geneva, Montreux, Cully ... Lake Geneva loves a festival

Festivals have played an interesting role in the cultural development of the country. Of course, Montreux Jazz Festival has changed since 1967. Zappa has ceased to burn in the real sense of the word. (In 1971, during a Mothers of Invention concert, an accidental fire ravaged the Casino). Deep Purple wrote the world famous song "Smoke on The Water" about it). Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Nina Simone have been replaced by their hiers, Gogo Penguin and Lana Del Rey. Although jazz is less present, it remains nevertheless a mythical, unmissable rendez-vous. It’s also possible to relive online many moments of this glorious past via video. Until the end of May 2018, the Swiss National Museum, located in Zurich is looking back on 50 years of  Montreux Jazz Festival history, celebrating the legendary Claude Nobs and filling the exhibition rooms with music and unique glimpses behind the scenes.

Exhibition in the National Museum Zurich ©Swiss National Museum


A little further down the lake, created relatively recently in 1983, is the Cully Jazz Festival which has carved itself the lion's share of spring. In the canton of Lucerne, central Switzerland, the Willisau Jazz Festival is an August institution famous in the world of Free Jazz. A more demanding affair, the festival programme created by the graphic designer Nicklaus Troxler (Troxler has been made famous by his incredible posters (Cf book Niklaus Troxler, "Jazz n more" Edition Flokwang/Steidl). In 1975 Chris McGregor and Cecil Taylor were on the bill. In 2016, Roscoe Mitchell and Eve Risser were present. If one adds to this the Südtirol jazz festival and other jazz and improvised music events, it might seem that on the other side of the Alps lies a country that lives in a state of continuous musical effervescence, enough to feed the creative imagination and press records.



Important labels in the history of European jazz

Labels are an equally important part of the country's musical strength. Two of them, HatHut Records and Intakt Records, could even be looked upon as ancient European jewels thanks to their phenomenal catalogue. We were interested in the former on the occasion of its fortieth birthday. The label of Werner Uehlinger has just been sold to Outhere who claims to want to continue the tradition of orange sided album sleeves. HatHut's first concern was to popularize Free Jazz on the other side of the Atlantic and it quickly offered luxurious conditions to many Swiss musicians. Among them was Pierre Favre, of course, with Portal Arrivederci Le Chouartse, but also the younger generation with Samuel Blaser, Manuel Mengis, Luzia von Wyl, Colin Vallon and Christoph Erb.

Intakt Records is ten years younger than its predecessor, which does not prevent it from making a big splash with its almost 300 releases. "Small budget, huge quality" - their motto sums up nearly everything about their catalogue. A large part is devoted to international improvisers, but fear not, the nationals are not left behind. The label is faithful to those it accompanies, including Christoph Irniger, talented saxophonist beyond the Zurich scene: Stefan Aeby, Omri Ziegele, Sarah Buechi, Raffaele Bossard, Julian Sartorius, Tommy Meier and Michael Jaeger. Intakt is also the official label of the percussionist Lucas Niggli who is one of the most interesting musicians of recent years, particularly noteworthy has been his collaboration with Andreas Schaerer.



The vanguard

Other record companies are historically less established but nevertheless show a certain vibrancy, for example the soberly titled Musiques Suisses which features jazz, classical and traditional music. It has recently released the young piano prodigy Yves Theiler, as with Heiri Känzig and George Gruntz. Its particularity lies in the fact that it belongs to the Migros supermarket chain, which is therefore directly involved in cultural sponsorship. Imagine in France, Auchan or Carrefour doing the same? In a more underground register, the labels QFTF, Unit Records and Wide Ear Records probe the most demanding fringes of experimental, improvised and electronic music. In this electronic register, the trio Plaistow was unclassifiable. We regularly find the violinist Frantz Loriot, a Frenchman who has been living in Zurich for a long time, but also Tobias Meier, Markus Lauterburg, Lucien Dubuis, Orioxy (the quartet of the harpist Julie Campiche and the singer Yaël Miller now disbanded, Marie Kruttli and Marco Von Orelli.


In this more complex area, Veto Records, the label of Christoph Erb has been acting as a flagship for the past 10 years. With the first album of the sextet’s founder - Christoph Erb (ts, bcl), Achim Escher (as), Vincent Membrez (elec), Yves Reichmuth (l), Christian Weber (b), Julian Sartorius (dms) - , the label brings together the confines of a musical spectrum that never fails to surprise. We saw it recently with the ELK trio, and even earlier with albums by Lila, Vera Kappeler or Schnellertollermeier, Erb likes dark, abstract and hostile climates, his personality and his knowledge of Free Jazz make him a smuggler of talent. He took advantage of the strategic position of the small town of Lucerne, conveniently twinned with Chicago. Exchange is a collection of cultural exchanges between the cities allowing Swiss and Chicago musicians to meet up. A prime example would be the Urge Trio (with Keefe Jackson (bs, ts) and Tomeka Reid (cello))- their second record.with their aptly named The Luzern-Chicago Connection.


Under the bridges of Luzern

Lucerne is a very important city for music, in many ways it is the musical capital of the Confederation. The Lucerne Festival exists since 1938, created around contemporary Western written music. This city’s conservatory is a real pool of talent, among its large teaching staff we find Gerry Hemingway, Heiri Känzig, Susanne Abbuehl, Lauren Newton and Matthias Spillman. We can also count at least two major orchestras: firstly, the Lucerne Jazz Orchestra with many former graduates of the conservatory and the nearby Zurich scene; secondly, the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra with its more contemporary register. The latter was formed in 2004 by Pierre Boulez, an ensemble that epitomises the stylistic porosity at work in Switzerland. This is precisely the institution that we find with Andreas Schaerer and his sextet Hildegard Lernt Fliegen on The Big Wig. A totally Lucerne piece of work, summed up by the word ‘free’.


The six musicians of Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (HLF) are a symbol of this music’s strength on the other side of Lake Geneva. Well aware of the current phenomenon, Citizen Jazz has devoted two interviews (The first date of 2015) to Andreas Schaerer, charismatic and central personality of the Swiss scene, confirmed by his records and filmed concerts. But we must not neglect the other members of the sextet who are equally symbols of a society that’s open and by necessity multicultural. The trombonist Andreas Tschopp in particular, who with brother Matthias Tschopp (baritone saxophone) and pianist Rainer Tempel form the trio Ersatzbrüder - a real product of Lucerne. Benedikt Reising and Christoph Steiner also have interesting careers outside HLF, creating new networks and links that make the small alpine country a very homogeneous whole.

As the end of this article draws near, let's highlight, however, the four names of musicians under forty that should be considered as the frontrunners of a geographical and generational groundswell: Andreas Schaerer, Luzia von Wyl, Samuel Blaser and Christoph Erb are names that we will surely find in decades to come. There are many others who have already been widely quoted here. The Helvetic Confederation of Jazz certainly has good days ahead. Crossing the border is therefore very salutary, and rest assured there’s nothing to declare at customs: exile is musical, strictly musical. The tax authorities will have nothing to say, though your banker, however, may have cold sweats.

This article originally appeared in Citizen Jazz in April 2017. Created in 2001, Citizen Jazz is the first French-language webzine dedicated to jazz and improvised music.