I wonder if even the most knowledgeable of jazz listeners in the U.S. taking a blindfold test of Swiss pianist IrÃ¨ne Schweizer could guess with her identity. Cecil Taylor or Alexander von Schlippenbach might be suggested. Her “Homage to Don Cherry” could bring Dollar Brand or Don Pullen to mind. But Schweizer arrived at her musical maturity long ago, largely free of outside influences. If she were American and male, she’d probably be seen as a major figure in jazz-based improvisation. Still, she’s rather unheralded outside of Europe, and one hopes that the masterful To Whom It May Concern might raise her profile a bit. She works her way through an uncharacteristically wide range of material here, often moving far afield from the avant-garde with which she is most strongly associated. One gets the sense that this time around, Schweizer wants to establish that she can cover all stylistic bases while maintaining her musical integrity.
“Bleu Fonce” is a traditional blues, played unremittingly straight throughout. “Scratching at the Tonhalle” is one of the most successful integrations of keys and piano strings and innards I’ve ever heard. No gimmicks, no “noise” effects; the piece is a thoroughly considered exploration of the piano’s tonal palette. She powers her way through Monk’s “Four In One,” effortlessly capturing the composer’s angularity and spikiness while investing the tune with her own linear improvisation. Carla Bley’s stately “Ida Lupino” is given a big-hearted reading, deeply respectful, but infused with an element of risk taking, moving inside the piano briefly to complete a key phrase. “Xaba” is Township music, close in its way to gospel — vibrant, celebratory and immensely winning. On “Final Ending,” Schweizer plays as if possessed, working at a technical and organizational level achieved by very few musicians. It is music of uncompromising beauty and dignity, but it is also unsettling; the stakes seem high, her personal investment very evident. Schweizer’s spoken “thank you” at the conclusion sounds uncommonly modest in light of the program’s degree of achievement.