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Prelude In Zurich, Switzerland, the last day of May is an unseasonably cold one. The thermometer struggles to reach ten degrees Celsius, and the constant precipitation over the last few days has prompted the federal meteorological service to issue a flood warning for all cantons north of the Alps—a rare occurrence in this small mountain republic. Still, steady trickles of people converge on the city’s venerable Neumarkt Theater on this rainy evening. The present three-story structure dates to 1742, but its predecessor on this spot was, in the early sixteenth century, home to Konrad Grebel, who with Felix Manz hatched the Swiss Brethren here, a branch of the Anabaptists. In the 1920s the building housed the first headquarters of the Communist Party of Switzerland; a plaque outside commemorates the roughly eight hundred Swiss nationals who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, and the six hundred survivors who returned dedicated the building to “the culture of international solidarity.” Just a stone’s throw away, at Spiegelgasse 14, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had planned a revolution a few years before. At the other end of the narrow alley is the world-famous Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada, and a short walk further south, James Joyce used to enjoy a glass of Fendant or two at the Restaurant Kronenhalle. Henry Wirz was born just around the corner from the Neumarkt too, but official tourist brochures don’t list Froschaugasse 26 after the plaque commemorating the expat who rose to become commander of the notorious Andersonville pow camp in Georgia—the only high-ranking Confederate officer to be tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes after the American Civil War—was quietly removed some years ago.1 On this chilly, drizzly night, though, the Neumarkt Theater doesn’t host a poetry reading or experimental play. The poster in the foyer announces a concert billed as “Monk and More . . . ,” pairing two of Switzerland’s most 2 prelude exceptional improvising musicians. At age seventy-two, pianist Irène Schweizer is widely recognized as a national treasure. Back in the heady 1960s, she was one of the very, very few women among the pioneers of European free jazz, and while she had to work hard and wait long for the well-deserved accolades, the international press has been referring to her as “the First Lady of European Jazz” or “the grande dame of European jazz piano” for a decade or two now.2 More than a generation younger than Schweizer, saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder is her congenial counterpart. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Wickihalder returned to Switzerland, although as a first-rate soprano saxophonist and highly regarded composer, he continues to perform all over the world. As Wickihalder explains to the audience that evening by way of introducing his original composition “Last Jump,” “Wir Jazzmusikerinnen sind ja auch Grenzgänger”—jazz musicians are also commuters across international borders.3 Tonight, Wickihalder makes all the announcements from the stage; Schweizer doesn’t speak, except during the applause following the Wickihalder-penned numbers when she points, with almost parental pride, to her duo partner, beams a wide smile, and repeats his name. The saxophonist would later concede that it can be difficult to find musical space improvising with Schweizer, whose forceful, percussive style many other high-caliber musicians find challenging .4 Tonight though, this is truly a dialogue: each listens carefully to the other—Schweizer focuses her gaze intently on Wickihalder, whose posture on his main instrument sometimes recalls Sidney Bechet, the bell of his soprano tracing a high arc, pointing at the ceiling. When he channels Rahsaan Roland Kirk and puts his soprano and tenor saxophones to his mouth simultaneously , it is not a musical gimmick but the compelling response to a call from Schweizer’s piano. His eyes are mostly closed, even during the pianist’s solo passages when he often retreats to the edge of the stage, crouching, head cocked, hands folded between his knees as if in prayer. This is a conversation, an emotional journey in sound, really; before long, the energy of the performance draws the audience in too, and the listeners no longer simply witness the concert, they become part of it. While his horns can just as easily tell a profound story of loss and longing or hurt and anger, a boyish wit and playfulness are characteristic of Wickihalder’s style—one reason the saxophonist gravitated to Thelonious Monk’s...


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