Christophe SchweizerInterview with Christophe Schweizer about his album Christophe Schweizer Normal Garden:
Physique (OmniTone 15201)
[Interview with executive producer Frank Tafuri]

Tafuri: Though there have been some great ones in the music's history, trombonists (compared to other instrumentalists) are a bit of a rarer breed.  Why did you gravitate toward trombone?

Schweizer: There is no simple explanation for that decision.  Before I try to explain this I should tell you that I barely ever think "trombone" anymore, it feels more like my voice — it just "is".  It does not feel difficult.  But let me try:  it was and still is a mixture of love for the many sounds of the instrument and a certain instinct that this was the sound my soul was going to need to express itself.  Trombone is a talking sound, and I do think of music in terms of language.  I was no wunderkind, but it came to me naturally, and I was fortunate to always have excellent teachers.  In addition, from a very early age I had a certain urge to do things that had never been done before, or to do old things in new ways, which got me kicked out of most schools I ever tried to go to.  In the field of musical instruments, this means I was clearly hearing possibilities on the trombone (not on the violin or the piano) that I didn't hear anyone play, and it is towards the realization of these visions that I enjoy working today.

Tafuri: A lot of musicians learn their instrument by playing classical repertoire, as you did, but only some of them move to jazz.  How and why did you "move over," as it were?

Schweizer: I knew from the start that I was going to improvise.   What happened was this: in order to learn a brass instrument, whether you are going to be an improviser or not, we have to practice all the same things.  In doing that, I was fortunate to be around classical players who had some of the most pure sounds I have ever heard to this day, and I knew that was much closer to the sound I was looking for than most of the "jazz" sounds I heard.  So I went with that for a while, and considered mastering the classical way of playing as part of my discipline in developing the skills I thought I was going to need to get my sound.  Along the way I performed in orchestras, chamber groups and as a soloist.  Once I began playing as an improviser more and more, and especially after I started my own projects, there simply was less room for that other world.  It was not so much a conscious decision as the fact that we can't do everything, and not just because there isn't enough time in our lives.

Tafuri: Definitely the motivation you speak about having, from an early age, to do things differently, whether they be old or new, must have drawn you to improvisation — even if they did get you kicked out of places.  Where do you think that spark came from and how do you keep it alive, fresh?

Schweizer: I think I was born that way, and I always took to people who in one way or another were like that in any field.  In that sense, there isn't much I have to consciously do to keep it fresh, because finding ideas is a daily activity for me.  Of course, I'm not the only one who does this; it just seems that there are certain types of inventions that come to me, and there is nothing I can do about their nature.  I sometimes spend more energy fitting ideas to whatever the parameters may be.  As I observe myself in this respect, I realize that despite the studying I have done to control my work, it keeps eluding and surprising me, and I am grateful for that.

Tafuri: One thing I've noticed about trombonists — J J Johnson and Bob Brookmeyer come immediately to mind — is that they're often fine composers.  Why do you think this is?

Schweizer: The trombone has a special place in music, as in some ways it is the most unusual of the commonly used instruments.  There is a certain uniqueness to it that is reflected in the personalities of the people who play it.  Uniqueness is one of the characteristics of creative humans.  On another level, I believe the closeness of the sound to the human voice, while being limited inevitably to interpret rather than imitate it, causes a profound proximity to the origins of musical creation.

Tafuri: What is the "uniqueness" you talk about of the trombone and what does it reflect in your personality?

Schweizer: Like I said before: I don't think about lot of "trombone" at all.  I might explain it like this: The trombone has a broader spectrum of sounds than any other wind instrument in jazz, which is an important part of its history, not just because of the mute techniques that came from the Ellington Band.  Its technique as far as articulation is being approached differently by almost every player, and the differences there and in the sounds people have are so pronounced that there is a bigger percentage of instantly recognizable voices here than on other instruments.  It's hard to put this into words, and I'll stay away altogether from reflecting my "trombone personality", if I may.

Tafuri: This is kind of a corny question, but one music fans are often interested in: What are your sources of inspiration when you compose?

Schweizer: I don't think about inspiration.  The source of my creativity is the need to find ways to describe and communicate the mixture of visual and emotional impressions I carry around in me.  That is something that has always been part of myself.  Listening to other musicians' work, looking at art, and a number of other activities help me find terms to understand the voices and pictures in my imagination. 
Equally important is the need to simply be with other musicians and to play with them for people.  It feels good.  Music is a language, and it communicates what goes on between the people on stage and in the audience, and between many other things — imagine all the possible lines of communication on all levels that are going on!
I am motivated by the importance of the fact that music is one of the languages that allows us to say the things where spoken language gets in the way or has no words.
Technically, I take pleasure in inventing certain geometrical concepts, which on a mathematical level are still very simple (I like to imagine all the possibilities left to deal with!), but which already open up many ways to create shapes, variety and organization.

Tafuri: How does the size of the group affect your compositions?  I'm not talking about arrangements here, I'm talking about compositions.  For example, you lead several groups, including groups smaller than Normal Garden.  How is the music you write for Normal Garden different than, say, for 5SIX7?

Schweizer: The main reason why I lead several groups is that the concept of unity in a group and a performance is very important to me, which means that I have to limit the range of ideas in a single group.  As far as Normal Garden is concerned, I need a group this size to realize certain formal concepts.  This means: there is no distinction between composition and arrangement.  These pieces can't be performed by a smaller ensemble, and if it were to be larger, I'd want to try some other things!
In the case of 5SIX7 some of the music is so complex that you can't get a coherent chemistry with a larger group, let alone the practical aspect of getting this many guys together for so many rehearsals, which is also what it took for the group to come up with our improvisational and interactive concept.

Tafuri: Do you think being a European gives you a different perspective on jazz, especially playing jazz here in the US?  If so, how?

Schweizer: It definitely does.  I can't totally explain this yet, however.  I only know that being in the US has helped me to begin understanding the spiritual and mental roots, and the meaning of history.  On a more surface level, I was fortunate at an early point in my development to be involved in groups that were little concerned with preconceived ideas and instead cared only about expressing the circumstances we lived in at the time.  This put me in touch with a very pure and connected type of creativity, which still motivates me and which maybe would have been less likely to happen in the US.
Paradoxically, at the stage where I am now, I feel more openness in the US towards what I am doing.  And most importantly, I think a lot of what I am doing now I would have never done in Europe.
You see — I feel very comfortable and blessed where I am, but to explain it, I can't avoid these contradictions.

Tafuri: You talk about the "complexity" of the music with 5SIX7, but the music for Normal Garden is by no means easy.  And when I've mentioned your name to musicians I know here in New York, often the first reaction I get is about how hard your music is — not that it's not good, it just really challenging.  Do you have that perception of your own music?  If so, why do you think people find it so complex?

Schweizer: I'll sum it up like this: it's not hard, it's different.  My choice is that in order to say the things I want to say, I have to use certain kinds of material you don't find in other musicians' concepts too often; ie, I like to avoid reinterpretation of preexisting material.
This is not to question the validity of music that is based on more "traditional" elements — there is a lot of wonderful music like that out there, and some of it is not at all easy.  Only if we do things the way we feel we have to do them, while maintaining the appreciation for someone else who honestly does the same, do we really embrace the spiritual freedom "jazz" is about.
This means first of all that the material is always second to the content it describes.  If it is challenging, that's not the issue, and my music is certainly not meant to sound like a display of technical and mental prowess of any sort.  In my experience, once a musician absorbs the nature of what I do, the learning curve is not steep, and besides there is some incredible talent around whose minds want to keep busy and who interpret what I do with ease.
What I do is therefore nothing new in the sense that I try to accomplish what I can't help in order to achieve something good, nor am I the only one.  I hope to be part of the tradition of creation.

Tafuri: On the subject of your compositions, would you talk a little about each of the pieces on Physique?  Where did they come from and what are key things about which listeners should be aware?

Schweizer: If these pieces make our listeners feel like opening their ears, and if they are uplifted by what they hear, it would make me feel very happy.  You don't have to "know" anything to enjoy what we tried to do.
Generally, I think of these compositions as a kind of "musical lens" which focuses the collective energy of the musicians in one common direction.  They were written as part of a program for a tour that essentially the same band did in 1998, so they went through quite a few performances before this recording, and we got complete takes of each piece during our one afternoon of recording.
In my thinking, music does not say anything that can be described verbally.  That leaves technical aspects to be talked about, which in this place and time I fear would distract listeners from what is essential.
This is, however, the place for a word of appreciation for the work Billy Hart put into this project.  To do what he did here at the stage of life he is at makes me wish that along my path I will continue to grow younger by curiosity and expertise as a musician and a man like he has done.  He assumes a very special and important role.  In the same way, there are outstanding contributions from each musician on this project.  I can't talk about all my feelings about what is documented here, but probably those who listen will guess them.

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