Made in Switzerland (the pros and cons of being a Swiss jazz artist)

Swiss Vibes 2013_01_Mix 4“You can tap into resources and support and it’s there”  Leo Tardin

The Swiss jazz scene is evolving and has been for some time. Music education at institutions such as the Bern University of the Arts, professional support for artists and an expansion of the term jazz, have helped the emergence of new and award-winning talent. I asked musicians who’ve had help from Pro Helvetia, how being Swiss has impacted their music and careers and if any changes could be made for the better.

They unanimously acknowledged the funding system that exists. Drummer Florian Arbenz said financial help was a huge advantage, “Because of the spare time we have for our heads to create something…(and) work on our own concepts.” Leo Tardin, who spent a significant time building his reputation whilst living in New York, said that being abroad gave him perspective on being Swiss, “You can tap into resources and support and it’s there. It’s shrinking just like everywhere else but we’re still very privileged and that’s a fact.”

It will always be diverse, musically”  Stefan Rusconi

Several artists did refer to the Nordic scene as an example to follow, with its huge investment in jazz and organic creation of an almost tangible ‘brand’, encompassing artists from Jan Garbarek to E.S.T. However, the journalist Arnaud Robert said recently, “Switzerland creates individuals, not schools or movements of music,” and musician Stefan Rusconi agrees, “It will always be diverse, musically, I don’t think it will be like the Nordic sound, I think it will be an approach, an attitude that could come out of Switzerland.”

I would agree; as a DJ visiting Switzerland, I was drawn to the open-minded spirit of people less concerned with being cool, than being free (whilst getting things done, of course!). Humour and a spattering of crankiness are somewhere in the mix and as the Zurich-born violinist, Tobias Preisig, says, “I’m pretty amazed how small this country is but how rich it is music and cultural-wise.” Maybe this is entangled with the make up of Switzerland as noted in Wikipedia, it’s not, ‘a nation in the sense of a common ethnic or linguistic identity’ and over one fifth of the population are immigrants.

“Switzerland, for me, is a big chance”  Elina Duni

Vocalist Elina Duni says of her quartet, “This music wouldn’t exist without Switzerland because it is the fruit of bringing together my Albanian roots and my Swiss culture.” Having moved to Geneva when she was ten, Duni sees her music as building bridges between people and acknowledges the support she’s had with that, “Switzerland, for me, is a big chance.”

Andreas Schaerer also feels that being Swiss has informed his compositions and vocal work in an interesting way. He refers to the Swiss obsession with detail, “We work so long to make things better and better until every last corner of the product is perfect…What is good is if you can be brave and destroy it…so that you see these pieces of complexity (and detail) but the environment is complete chaos.”

Schaerer also observed that the Swiss are good at technology and high quality products that take the spotlight, as it allows ‘their creator’ to stay in the shadows. Elina Duni also commented on this Swiss characteristic of humility, “It allows people to learn further and go further,” but too much of it prevents the Swiss from exporting itself with pride. Rusconi pointed to the same issue, that it’s not ‘Swiss’, “to stand there and say we’re proud of ourselves, we want to get out there, we’re great.” Self-promotion is a pre-requisite in the music world today and Schaerer has had to confront his discomfort with that, “You need to get rid of it without becoming arrogant or losing respect for others.”

“It’s hard to cross borders in music and life”  Tobias Preisig

Several of the artists have lived or are living abroad. Samuel Blaser now resides in Berlin but spent time in New York. Although none of them felt that ‘being Swiss’ made them particularly exotic, Blaser felt, “It’s stronger if you live in New York because you can then ‘export’ your music back into the EU market (from the US).” Being an ‘export’ is vital to these musicians because as they pointed out Switzerland is not a big enough market for them to survive there alone. “It’s hard to cross borders in music and life,” reflected Preisig, and it’s why support to tour is key. Pianist Marc Perrenoud saw this as a positive, “I use the obligation to export yourself as a way to travel, meet people and experience other cultures.”

Being a Swiss musician is packed with advantages, not least because being brought up in a culture of excellence, passion and professionalism has impacted the standard of playing. Being a jazz musician anywhere is not an easy choice but that can’t be changed, neither can the size of Switzerland. However the discomfort with ‘blowing your own trumpet’ can be discarded along with the Swiss milkmaid. These musicians are cultivating a confidence in their own unique ‘voices’ and this needs to be reflected in the way they are promoted. I’m certain cheese and chocolate will always sell but now there’s a chance to add a new and more emotionally expressive export to the table.

Take 5: Switzerland

Take 5_Swiss team

(Left to Right) Andreas Schaerer, Elina Duni, Florian Arbenz, Marc PerrenoudStefan Rusconi, Tobias Preisig. Leo Tardin, Samuel Blaser. ©Emile Holba

The heated kitchen for innovative artists

Take Five is a “heated kitchen” for innovative, young jazz artists, with five concentrated days of coaching, learning, sharing and networking (along with some fun and seriously good food). Created by the UK’s foremost jazz producer, Serious, and funded by Pro Helvetia, Take Five:Switzerland was designed to isolate eight Swiss musicians in the lush setting of Bore Place in Kent – think bluebell woods, gardens bursting with wisteria and mock orange, slouchy sofas and log fires – and lead them through sessions with a performance coach (Mary McCusker), music promoters from across Europe, as well as, digital, legal and industry experts including Wulf Muller of Sony.

“It’s been a rich experience,” said Tobias Preisig, as a comment on the variety of “inside information” they could garner, even when that meant facing tedious home truths. Musicians, such as Florian Arbenz, were aware they could improve their social networking and online presence, and some learnt the value of visual presentation, possibly helped by the photo shoot with experienced portraitist, Emile Holba. Scott Cohen of The Orchard gave a blistering session on aggressive digital distribution and ways to make money from music in an era of sporadic CD sales, with pianist Leo Tardin commenting, “He was the one to shake our ground the most, not someone to pat us on the head, but kick us in the butt, and he did that very well.”

“We need some space for our dreams” Andreas Schaerrer

Sometimes the message from promoters was dour, “We’re learning about the business, but there is no business”, said Marc Perrenoud noting that, “You have to build your audience because, apparently, no audience is interested in jazz.” However, as the vocalist Andreas Schaerer explained, “We need some space for our dreams,” and without exception they were resilient to negative messages. They have to be.

Jazz will need to go on beyond the passing of the classic “greats” and continue sculpting its own relevant identity whilst earning a living. Schaerer felt supported by some promoters learning that, “It’s not only our job to build up our career but it’s also that everybody is interested in having a future generation of active people.”

“We are a community, we are coming from the same place” Stefan Rusconi

What became achingly clear was the wall of work that faces these artists on a daily basis and that as they’d been given this break away from emails, calls, rehearsals, travelling, organising, etc, they were keen to squeeze every drop of tangible use out of the time with little patience for anything deemed irrelevant. Although Take Five is an extremely organised and detailed affair, thanks in part to the sterling work of Martel Ollerenshaw, it also tried to be flexible. So when the Swiss crew stood up to say they wanted time to simply hang out to share concepts, contacts and knowledge with each other, they were given it.

Something I was most struck by was the honesty with which the artists spoke to me about issues they were facing. Somehow the bombardment of information along with the intimate environment and maybe the odd glass of wine had enabled them to face up to their personal challenges: do they follow their business head or artistic heart, how can they deal with the amount they should be doing whilst having focused rehearsal/practise days, or time for their family, what step should they take next?

A Tribe Called Swiss

On the last day there was an extraordinary jam session led by one of the UK’s most exquisite saxophonists, John Surman. And there was an impromptu game of “football-piggy-in-the-middle”. It was actually in the kick about that I most clearly saw a key triumph of Take Five: the founding of a connected, bonded and inspired group. Let’s call it, A Tribe Called Swiss. Without exception each artist echoed Stefan Rusconi’s sentiment, “I knew all of them at least by name, but it’s been great to meet the other musicians. Also, to see we are a community, we are coming from the same place.”

Take Five can shake things up and it will take a while for the musicians to digest it all. I agreed with Rusconi when he said, “We need to be proud of what we’re doing. Swiss music is the new thing – chaotic, strange but rooted too.” Now all they need to do is buck the Swiss trend and force the spotlight onto themselves. As John Surman noted after their music session together, “I won’t forget you guys in a hurry,”  and if they utilise their newly found esprit de corps, they stand a chance of the music world saying the same thing.

Take 5 Switzerland website

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