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Swiss modern jazzwoman turning 60

Irène Schweizer was one of the pioneers of free jazz in Europe Keystone Archive

The Swiss modern jazz pianist, Irène Schweizer, whose talent for improvisation has earned her an international reputation, celebrates her 60th birthday on Saturday.

Born in Schaffhausen, Schweizer’s interest in music was sparked by the dance bands she heard as a young child in her father’s restaurant, and at the age of 12 she began teaching herself to play the piano.

Three years later she formed a trio with Uli Trepte (double bass) and Mani Neumeier (drums), which became one of the first European groups to play free jazz.

Schweizer – who also plays the drums – has been based in Zurich for over 40 years, but has built up a loyal following in jazz circles around the world since performing at the Frankfurt jazz festival in 1966.

Contacts with leading jazz musicians of the late 1960s had a profound effect on her musical development. As she once put it: “We started to grow tired of playing changes and rhythm. One day when we were rehearsing, something changed. We didn’t really know how it happened… we just left all those systems behind.”

At the time one of the few female musicians on the modern jazz scene, Schweizer became in the 1970s a founding member of the Feminist Improvising Group.

“We called ourselves that because we were all so involved in the women’s movement,” she said. “But in the 1980s people began to criticise the name and say it was too political.

“So we re-named it the European Women Improvising Group, the initials EWIG meaning ‘eternal’ in German.”

Schweizer’s birthday celebrations will culminate in a jazz concert on June 10 in Zurich’s city theatre, the Schauspielhaus.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR