Intakt CD 057 (Double-CD)
This Intakt double CD, which is simply named after the artist himself, is a comprehensive and representative portrait of the Swiss pianist Urs Voerkel. Urs Voerkel has been playing with the drummer Paul Lovens for more than twenty years. The duo recordings with Paul Lovens are great testimonies of musical proximity, founded on musical friendship, longstanding artistic experience and a special kind of alertness.
The duos with Irène Schweizer (on drums) are also conversations between friends. The five variations of Voerkel’s «Zwischenzeitstück» as well as his composition «Nomis» are the first joint release of Urs Voerkel and Irène Schweizer after a quarter of a century of playing together.
Characteristic for Urs Voerkel’s openness and his desire to find the new, five quartet improvisations stand in contrast to the recordings with the longstanding partners. The trombone player Priska Walss and the singer Gabriela Scherrer do not come out of the jazz tradition, but rather represent a younger generation with an education in classical and baroque music. Originally planned as a band to set live music to film, the quartet, however, has quickly freed itself from the role of an illustrator and made its way upon the parquet of improvised music.
TESTIMONY by Evan Parker
"I met Urs first time in Heidelberg at a summer school organised by Karl Berger. It must be almost thirty years ago. I was there with Alex and Paul. He was there with Peter Frey if I rembember right and the two of them were already such good players that it was difficult to think of teaching them anything. We played together – sometimes a little more inside, sometimes a little more outside. Urs and Paul got on so well that they continued to stay in touch and play as a duo. The miracle is that somehow we have all stayed in touch and that there is a scene and all these friendships and records and now a history. The bravery and spiritual strength of Urs Voerkel in the face of all that life has thrown at him is a proud part of that history. It is expressed nowhere better than in his music."
LINER NOTES by Patrik Landolt
«Urs: a major new star,» was the title of a piece in the Melody Maker on February 5, 1977. Up to that point, no Swiss jazz musician had experienced such a thing. In an extensive review, the internationally acclaimed British magazine presented solo and trio recordings on the Berlin label Free Music Production (FMP). «Really … you should hear this album,» wrote the journalist Steve Lake. «Besides which you can have the smug satisfaction of saying ‘I dug him from the beginning’ when he finally becomes famous.» The reviewer, who admits to knowing little about the young pianist, ascribes Voerkel to the German scene and says, relieved, that he pleasantly stands out from German free jazz («wall of sound»): «Voerkel operates at the other end of the sound spectrum.» And «for a newcomer, Urs has a lot of musical personality. These two records reveal rare qualities; among them, strength of character and individuality.»
The solo LP S’Geschänk, which presented Urs Voerkel as the romantic and ballad specialist that he has remained to this day, and the trio record with the simple name of the three participating musicians Voerkel-Frey-Lovens were a strong international debut of the twenty-eight year old musician. Even the German writer and jazz critic Wilhelm Liefland acknowledged them in a review in the Frankfurter Rundschau [a daily newspaper out of Frankfurt] with the title «Metaphysics and Work»: «Urs Voerkel belongs to those pianists of the jazz avant-garde who slowly and patiently dissolve the traditional forms and formulas of pieces from Jazz and Classical music. At times broody, he plays analytical, but does not forget the continuous drive. In trio with Paul Lovens and Peter K. Frey, he occasionally expands notions, or rather aphorisms, but in their highly charged field distribution, even this avant-garde wallpaper slowly becomes cozy.»
At the beginning of the nineties, Urs Voerkel played in many different formations. He was at a peak, he said in a detailed discussion. Urs Voerkel is underway in duo with his longstanding friend Paul Lovens, or in duo with the pianist Fredi Lüscher. He had a trio with the English trombonist Paul Rutherford and Paul Lovens and practiced for the first time on an electronic instrument in «Heiliger Bimbam», an experimental band in the no-man’s land between jazz and rock with Urs Blöchinger, Christof Gantert, Moritz Rüdisühli, Luigi Archetti and Markus Gantenbein. And he regularly jammed late into the night in Zurich bars with Irène Schweizer on drums, Herbert Kramis on bass, Nat Su – later Peter Landis – on saxophone. They played pieces from Thelonious Monk. «It is an experiment. We want to find new places to perform, to play pieces by Monk in a loose club atmosphere. Themes we love and want to learn how to play,» says the Monk specialist modestly.
When Urs Voerkel - he was not even eighteen years old – first heard the saxophone player John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in the Swiss radio, he shot up from his chair in such enthusiasm and excitement that the cast he had on his broken leg broke apart. «My father, who played double bass in the Zurich Music Hall, allowed me to change from classical piano to jazz piano instruction. I found a new teacher; he was a bar pianist and taught me jazz pieces. It was a liberation for me,» Urs portrays. «When playing classical music I always had the impression that my feelings were filtered and muffled. What fascinated me about John Coltrane, Eroll Gardiner, or Thelonious Monk was this directness. I listened to Monk and Coltrane for years. This music pulled me completely into its orbit. At the same time, I realized, however, that I could not play like black jazz musicians. I didn’t know their background, and today I think that my fascination was based on an error. This music appeared to me to be much freer than it really was. I didn’t know at all out of what source this music style grew, and how many stories are present alone in free jazz.»
Voerkel found his own independence when he took a jazz course years later along with the Zurich guitarist Stephan Wittwer and the clarinetist Jürg Hager and there got to know the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, the drummer Paul Lovens and the saxophonist Evan Parker. «I discovered that one can make something one’s own from the basis of jazz music, without copying the greats and always unreachable models. These people have found a musical form that has something to do with life. I suddenly began hearing my own music.» European musicians took the place of the American role models and quickly became partners and musical colleagues. The jazz tradition, mostly Monk’s style of playing, his strong blues feeling and the rhythmical shifts and irregular structures, or the song form on Ornette Coleman remained, however, a lasting influence and forms Voerkel’s personal style of playing up to today. In contrast to many European free musicians, his improvisations are mainly led by melody and rhythm. His playing does not have elements of noise.
The contrast was crushing every time. In the seventies, when Voerkel came back to Zurich after a concert on the weekend in Berlin or from San Sebastian, where he won the prize for the best jazz soloist, he returned to a desert. In the Switzerland of the early seventies, there was nothing to play. Only a few concert halls, no clubs, still no co-op restaurant/bars, no places to meet for musicians. The founders of European improvised music had not yet been discovered in Switzerland. In Zurich, from time to time, concerts took place only in the hall of the «Hinteren Sternen». After his apprenticeship in book trade, Urs Voerkel lived in an apartment-sharing community and practiced with his colleagues many times a week in the rehearsal cellar. In 1970 the group «Formation» was born with the saxophonist Markus Giger, the bassist Peter K. Frey and the drummer Herb Hartmann. The first record by Urs Voerkel was recorded in 1973 with group «Formation» and was released on their own label in small numbers and had no great response. In the middle of the seventies, Urs moved into the apartment «Am Wasser» [On the Water], a house on the Limmat, in which, among others, the musicians Markus Giger, Michel Seigner, Peter K. Frey and Irène Schweizer also lived. This apartment was the center of the «New Thing» in Zurich, the then unknown European improvised music. International guests – musicians such as Paul Lovens, Rüdiger Carl or Mal Waldron lived there regularly – brought pieces of news from all over the world. As an apartment band, the «Huus Trio» played with Urs Voerkel, Irène Schweizer and Peter K. Frey, in which Urs Voerkel and Irène Schweizer played both drums and piano, thus took turns on both instruments.
«We almost couldn’t bear it, that we played so seldomly here in Switzerland. We practiced in the cellar, mostly just sat around. I had a job, worked in a roofing felt factory, Peter K. Frey made computer programs, Irène Schweizer worked as a secretary,» Urs explains the situation at that time. «As far as finances were concerned, it was a good time, nearly paradise. There were jobs everywhere, the cost of living wasn’t as high as it is today, and we didn’t need much: a mattress, a table, the things necessary for life. But there was no place for our music.»
Necessity was the mother of invention. To survive artistically, the pioneers of European improvised music were forced to also become pioneers in creating work. «We talked about various projects: on the one hand, we had to create places to play publicly. Next to such possibilities, we also looked for new forms to mediate our improvised music to people.» At that time, when no one knew the word «workshop,» Urs Voerkel and Michel Seigner put on their first workshop in the notorious apartment on the Weinbergstrasse. The entire house got the benefit of a weekly improvisation happening: both political consciousness as well as aesthetic education belonged to their all-embracing point of view. So the other apparent dwellers learned how to play an instrument, and Urs Voerkel began to seriously work on himself. Psychotherapy lasting many years led to a professional education as a music therapist. Up until 1998 he made a living with a half-time job as a music therapist in a psychiatric clinic.
In order to be able to play regularly, Voerkel rented a space together with colleagues at the end of the seventies. What was first a rehearsal space for his band «Tiegel» with bassist Peter K. Frey and saxophonist Christoph Gallio quickly became a space for concerts and developed to an important Zurich institution for the current music: the Workshop for Improvised Music (WIM). Not without pride, Urs tells of the founding of WIM. They set off a chain reaction. Just as fifteen years ago, today a host of musicians invites the public to a workshop concert under the direction of one of the WIM musicians. The spaces are booked up the entire week for rehearsals, workshops and courses.
The WIM, which is supported by a small municipal subsidy, has become large and colorful over the years. Numerous new faces enliven the scene, and the founding members have given the leadership to a new generation of musicians. The former founder Urs Voerkel plays from time to time in the WIM: at the «Piano Olympiad,» a piano festival running several days, or he plays with the saxophonist Philippe Micol and the drummer Jacques Widmer, a trio that recorded the record Sechstel in the WIM in 1987. Or in 1998 within the scope of the WIM Radio Days in a duo with Paul Lovens. The recording of this concert is documented on this double CD.
Only a few years after his successful recordings on FMP, a serious illness pushed the pianist’s music into the background. Within a short time, a kidney infection led to a loss of kidney function. Since then, his life has been strongly shaped by the development of this illness. A life as a jazz musician is a high wire act anyway, where a crash can threaten at any time; even more so, when an illness – with its recovery phases, hopes, but also with disappointments and hardships – has such a direct effect upon performing. He’s happy he can play at all, says Urs.
Living conditions have made musicians more conscious and open. His personal style of playing, which had some angular and ballad-like or melancholy sides already on the first solo LP, has become even more pronounced in the last few years. Even with all his dexterity, he often allows the musical flow to stall, he twists and turns, drills and reflects. «I try to reduce down to clarity,» he explains. «I have become physically weaker and simply cannot play clusters over a longer period of time. Also the long intensive improvisation arcs are too strenuous. I try now to consciously find clarity through a reduction to the essential, often to the melody as well. It is fun to create tension with fewer notes in a reflective way, and also to increase the intensity with breaks.»
A preferred musical form of communication for Urs Voerkel is the duo. The German magazine Jazzthetik raved about a duo CD Weiss (Unit Records) with the Swiss pianist Fredi Lüscher: «as if Paul Bley played Thelonious Monk or Thelonious Monk Paul Bley or Lennie Tristano Cecil Taylor or Cecil Taylor Lennie Tristan. With quiet steps, Lüscher and Voerkel open the doors to the large and smaller music halls of the newer history of the piano in jazz. It’s not a question here of eclecticism. Try again. Each piece is an original piece of Swiss work. And it is two who play with and find each other again and again, a winning team, a double head.»
Urs Voerkel has been playing with the German drummer Paul Lovens for more than twenty years. The first duo recording with Paul Lovens (Goldberg, Po Torch Records), which, like the duo recording released here also in the WIM, is one of these great testaments of musical proximity that is based on friendship, long-term artistic experience and a special sensitivity. «In contrast to the concert that was recorded ten years ago, our playing has become more fluid,» says Urs Voerkel today. «We have worked on a common conception of music all these years, a close toothed playing full of tips and hints.»
Friendship conversations also describe the duos with Irène Schweizer, with whom Urs has been continuously collaborating since his apartment period at the «Wasser.» The five variations of Voerkel’s Zwischenstück as well as his composition Nomis are the first joint releases of Urs Voerkel and Irène Schweizer after a quarter of a century of playing together.
The five free quartet improvisations stand in contrast to the recordings with the long-term partners and are characteristic for Urs Voerkel’s openness and search for the new. The trombonist Priska Walss and the singer Gabriela Scherrer do not come out of the jazz tradition, but rather represent a young generation with an education in classical and baroque music. Originally planned as a band for setting a film to music live, the quartet, however, broke away from the role of an illustrator and made its way to the parquet of free improvised music. «In the end, doesn’t the tension of improvised music,» Urs Voerkel asks, «rest in a way of playing that allows you no calculation and no security in saying where you’ll arrive?»
by Patrik Landolt, Zürich,1998
Urs Voerkel: * 10. April 1949 in Zürich; † 11. September 1999
CATALOGUE IRÈNE SCHWEIZER