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Despite All Odds: Christoph Irniger Quartet Begins Jazz Shares Season 10

The jazz life is not an easy life. Precarious financials, dwindling performance opportunities, record industry collapse, and a jazz-illiterate American public all mean that today’s jazz musician must have steel–reinforced resolve. And that’s before COVID-19 was added to the list of obstacles.


Despite these long odds, Christoph Irniger made the trek from Europe to perform five gigs in the U.S., concluding in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares began its 10th season of concerts. The Swiss tenor saxophonist was joined by fellow countryman Raffaele Bossard on bass, along with alto saxophonist Michaël Attias, and drummer Ziv Ravitz, two well-travelled, Israeli-born musicians, who have lived all over the world.


Iringer’s compositions, which filled the 75-minute set, were full of memorable lines. Melody matters to Irniger and his pieces were full of compelling shapes that moved in multiple directions. “First time I heard Christoph Irniger’s ‘Air’ I thought, ah, that’s a nice tune,” wrote Kevin Whitehead. “The second time, it was like I’d been hearing it all my life – his best melodies have that sort of insinuating quality.” The band performed twice in Zürich, where he lives and teaches, before embarking to the States, giving the Quartet ample time to live inside the music. The results were fantastic.


Irniger, Bossard and Ravitz have been working together as a trio for over a decade.Their two recordings: Gowanus Canal (2012, Intakt Records) and Octopus (2014, Intakt Records) demonstrates their deep rapport. The concert pulled from these recordings as well as a 2020 Intakt release, Open City, where the trio was joined by alto saxophonist Loren Stillman. When Stillman could not make the tour, Irniger asked the veteran alto saxophonist Michaël Attias to join the band.

The 45 masked, fully–vaccinated patrons who spread out comfortably at the Shea Theater were treated to a well-paced program of music that wasboth soothing and provocative. The music existed mostly in mid-tempo, with the horns operating largely in the middle registers. But there was nothing middle of the road about it. The colors and tonal range were distinctive and its emotional relevance was ever present.


Irniger brought his quintet, Pilgrim, for a 2019 Jazz Shares concert in Springfield, with Bossard the only holdover. Although the instrumentation was different (the earlier band included piano and guitar), Irniger’s tone, with its smooth, Getz-like quality was the same, as was his compositional playbook, which remained full of hummable lines and inviting harmonies.


Attias, the elder statesman at 53, was a joy to hear. His last trip to the Valley was a 2018 visit with Angelica Sanchez’ Nonet, and he has lost none of his commanding fluency and bite. His solos closely explored each composition, probing nooks and crannies for new insights. When the two horns locked, their embroidered counterpoint had a sense of inevitability. When bass and drums dropped out, the sound of the two saxophones sung purely and reached the rafters.


Ravitz was a revelation. It’s always a thrill to see a player for the first time, and his pattered fills and his use of a small, crash cymbal full of holes gave the ensemble a kinetic energy that added drama throughout the evening. His familiarity with the material let him anticipate every twist and turn, allowing him to sail along, animating and accenting.


Bossard possesses a fat, rounded tone that just felt good. His bond with his rhythm mate was palpable and his multiple solos were short, to the point and provided palate–cleansing respite. He deftly handled all the administrative details for the tour, and that skill translated to the bandstand, where he kept things on time and in line.


Over a post-concert drink (alas, the pandemic has put the kibosh on our usual Jazz Shares reception), Ravitz told us of approaching the mayor of the small city south of Paris where he now lives. New to town, he had a vision of a three-day jazz festival. His cold-call was met with great enthusiasm. What did Ravitz need from the city? They would write grants, provide resources, and support the idea however they could. As someone who had lived in the U.S. for a long time, the drummer was dumbfounded. For artists and presenters in the States, such a scenario is pure fantasy. In this land, the marketplace rules, and artists and presenters are left to their own devices. No wonder folks always ask if jazz is dead. Traveling uphill makes you weary. That musicians still cross oceans to make the effort to scratch out a creative life is inspiring, indeed.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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