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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Irène Schweizer & Han Bennink - Welcome Back (Intakt, 2015) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

This one tested my personal arbitrary star rating. Another 5-star album, so soon? Why not? It’s two giants of free jazz performing together in a rare duo setting. What’s not to like? Irène Schweizer has had an epic run of piano-drums duo albums in recent years, pairing with Han Bennink, Pierre Favre, Günter Sommer, Louis Moholo, and Andrew Cyrille. As others have noted, this is amazingly only her second album with Bennink, the two sound so good together.

There’s a recurrence of words and phrases that follow these two around, things like effortless and comfortable. But it’s important to remember how much Schweizer absolutely dominates her instrument. She’s a classically expert improviser, and Bennink is a superb partner. His long history in duet, including pianist Misha Mengelberg, serves him well in this setting.

Schweizer displays her usual light touch, which often leaves me wrongfooted (in a good way) when she caps on a dissonant chord after a breezy run, or contrasts her right- and left-hand runs, as she does midway through the opener, “Welcome Back.” That’s followed by two raucous, free tracks credited to Bennink, “Kit 4” and “Trap 5.” On the former, Bennink opens on muted drums, playing against Schweizer’s brisk riffs. As Bennink opens up the drum sounds and brings in more cymbal crashes, Schweizer continues filling in the space between riffs, nailing some classically Taylor-esque runs before Bennink comes to the fore in the final minute. By contrast, “Trap 5” begins with Schweizer alone, until Bennink comes in with brushes, and the piece finds its rhythm.

There’s no one centerpiece to this album, but the sequence of “Verflixt,” “Rag,” Bleu Foncé,” and “Apus Melba” is a superb example of free interplay at its finest. Within about 15 minutes, Schweizer and Bennink seem to breeze through swing, boogie, stride, all filtered through the lens of collaborative free jazz. “Apus Melba,” credited to Bennink, is a tune constantly on the move, rarely settling in one place for more than a few seconds, and the duo play off each other throughout the duration, taking and giving brief hooks to respond to.

As with their last album, a selection of covers demonstrates the pair’s love of jazz history. Their “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” is sturdily faithful on the surface, with subtle tweaks from Bennink that remind you this isn’t an austere salute. Later, the duo tackle Dyani’s “Ntyilo, Ntyilo.” Again, Schweizer takes the lead, while Bennink adds percussive commentary. There’s a very slight mournful edge to the performance, a reminder of Dyani’s gentle, quiet vocals from the original. At album’s end, Monk’s “Eronel” brings the album to a natural and buoyant close.

Video of Schweizer solo in 2008:

And on Bandcamp: