Christoph Irniger on Recording An Album During Covid, Shedding, and More

Short Bio

  • Christoph Irniger, born 1979, is a Swiss saxophonist, composer and bandleader
  • From 2000 to 2006 Irniger studied music education at the Zurich Jazz School, and performance at the Lucerne School of Music with Christoph Grab and Nat Su.
  • In the following years, Christoph stayed regularly in New York and Berlin and took lessons from Dave Liebman, Mark Turner and Ari Hoenig.
  • Christoph won the Friedel Wald Foundation development award in 2004, received the Borsa di Studio for Siena jazz University in 2006 and achieved third place in the 2010 ZKB jazz Prize with the Cowboys from Hell. Between 2015 and 2017 his band Pilgrim was awarded a high priority act from Pro Helvetia – Swiss Arts Council.
  • Christoph has played with Nasheet Waits, Dave Douglas, Ohad Talmor, Dan Weiss, Nils Wogram, Claudio Puntin, Stefan Rusconi, Chris Wiesendanger and Vera Kappeler to name a few. He was a member of the Lucerne jazz Orchestra for seven years and can be heard on four of their recordings. He was also co-leader of the prog-rock band Cowboys from Hell.
  • Irniger has made a name for himself in a range of line-ups, playing jazz, rock and related musical styles. As a musician from a generation which likes to work on multiple projects in eclectic styles, he leads a range of outfits, all distinct and surprising musically.
  • Irniger is leader of the band Pilgrim (with Dave Gisler, Stefan Aeby, Raffaele Bossard and Michael Stulz) and the Christoph Irniger Trio (with Raffaele Bossard and Ziv Ravitz),
  • Christoph’s work has been documented on over twenty albums to date, eight under his own name, mostly on Intakt Records. He has played concerts and tours throughout Europe, Asia and the USA.


ZS: What or whom got you interested in playing music and in particular the saxophone? 

CI: I started playing the saxophone at the age of 10. I was not attracted to the saxophone in particular and I don’t know if it was either me or my parents who had the idea. I remember my neighbor was playing the saxophone and I was attracted by the look of it. So this was maybe it! I started studying the saxophone in the town where I grew up with the local teacher. It was a pretty straight french classical education with the books of Jean-Marie Londeix and Marcel Mule at the beginning and I was not questioning anything.

Later – when I switched to tenor – my teacher introduced me to some basic jazz material but there was no focus on improvisation at that time. At the age of 15, I was asked to be the student for an introductory lesson for a new saxophone teacher. This guy was a young cat, who had just started studying music at the University and blew my mind with “Watermelon Man” (by Herbie Hancock), showing me how to improvise over it using the blues scale.

I decided to switch to this teacher and began studying jazz. At that time, I was able to play with my first band and dove into the world of funk, mostly inspired by Maceo Parker, Tower of Power and Mandrill to name a few.

I started checking out saxophone players that were stylistically rooted in both worlds, such as Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Joe Farrell, etc. The love for “classic” jazz came – as I remember – after reading a magazine about the history of the tenor saxophone.

In this magazine, there were recording recommendations to check out which I bought mostly and fell in love with it. After finishing high school, I worked a bit, traveled and then applied to study jazz at university, which luckily worked out. Looking back, it feels pretty organic and there was not a certain special event which made me decide to pursue music.

ZS: As you progressed as a saxophonist, what were some of key lessons that you always come back to? What do you find yourself practicing these days?

CI: My practicing routine was very well organized over a long time and I was keeping a record on everything I was practicing. Although my practice is not as organized as it once was, it became a key element in my learning to always carry a notebook with me to collect ideas – like a hunter and gatherer.

It was always really important for me to become a good craftsman on one hand, but also develop a distinct language and artistic vision. Making artistic decisions about things I practice, like songs, patterns, etcetera, became more and more important over time and so the experience got a personal touch, felt deeper, and was more enjoyable.

Today, I mostly start by noodling around, then listen to myself and take notice of what I like or don’t like. I try to develop ideas I like by analyzing, transcribing, transposing, composing, and ultimately adding them to my vocabulary.

Keeping a record and writing down ideas help to keep the process of practicing also more connected with my other roles of being a composer and bandleader and develop these fields as well. Out of the practicing process itself, I would say that pulse/time feel is a very important topic for me. It is not only about doing the most hip rhythmical stuff, but also about taking responsibility for the pulse. Especially as a saxophone player, you sometimes just rely on the rhythm section and think too much about your lines. I want to be able to contribute to the time by myself because otherwise, the rhythm section gets bored and starts to lose you. If you show them that you have a strong pulse they open up and can be more interactive.

There are basically two things which were and are very important to me talking about pulse. First, when I was studying with Nat Su, we basically played duo on standards with or without the metronome for two years. What he told me to focus on was, “Save the form, f**k the line”. So even if you play the most happening line of your life, if you are going to mess around with the time, you must leave your line and take responsibility for the time – because it’s what it is about if you play straight ahead jazz. It’s still the most important exercise for me. Also, if you think about other musical situations – if playing straight, open, or free or whatever, there is always something to contribute and take responsibility for with your role in a band or situation.

Another key lesson I gained was when I was studying with Ari Hoenig, where we were working on a concept which he did with Johannes Weidenmüller. We would both play and clap exercises using polyrhythms with the goal of hearing and feeling the subdivisions and developing a solid feel for time and form.

The final lesson I learned was, I not only should practice my horn to grow my music, but also listen to a lot of music, write compositions, play sessions, exchange ideas, play other instruments such as drums, piano, clarinet, and flute, and think about life and its feelings and how to transform these into sound. It’s the attitude of being open to all the other things around.

And of course, overtone exercises! After purchasing Liebman’s book in my early days at university, I created most of the exercises by myself.

Recently I have purchased Ben Wendel’s new book “Path to Altissimo” which I really like. It is a very nice collection of exercises and etudes with a very logical and coherent structure. There is a lot of material which you can play as written or as inspiration for creating your own version and assimilate in your own language.

ZS: I understand you released your most recent album during Covid. How was it recording an album during this pandemic, and any tips for players looking to record their albums during these times?

CI: We recorded Open City right before the lockdown. Since I could totally trust the mixing of Ziv Ravitz, we were even able to do all the post production without meeting in person. The release and the first three gigs were even at that time where everything was open.

After that, everything got closed again and due to travel restrictions, we never had the chance to have Loren Stillman with us, which is very sad. Nevertheless, I think it was important for all of us to do at least something, even if not as planned.

The whole year – or more – was like that. Most of the musicians had to change their plans several times and for me it helped to get through that by trying to keep reinventing all the time. Even if it didn’t work out, I had something going all the time. There was this release, I composed a lot – like a full big band program, which I never would have done without this special situation, practiced a lot, while other dove into film music or mixing, and recording. So my advice is to keep reinventing yourself, don’t stop working, and if you have music to record – do it! Nobody knows what the future brings right now and once things open up, you want to be ready.

ZS: How did you meet Loren Stillman, and what do you like about his playing and approach to music?

CI: I met Loren a couple of times when he was playing – but that was more small talk. He was always in my mind when thinking of a new color for my trio. As I heard he was moving to Cologne, I contacted him right away and we met in Zurich to rehearse for two days. After that, we played a couple of concerts and did the record in early 2020.

Of course he is a great saxophone player. But I especially really admire the way he is able to carry his idea to the listener and the other musicians. He has a very strong musical expression and for me all his lines are statements. Everything is articulated precisely to the end and makes sense in the small as also in the big picture!

ZS: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen over the past few years within the music industry and where do you think the music industry is heading? Will it be easier or more challenging for the aspiring musician?

CI: It has definitely gotten more challenging and still does – of course also because of the coronavirus! The major changes before that were first of course in terms of how people consume music and the evolution from buying to streaming and second the commercialization of jazz venues, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines over the last years and decreasingly less attention, less money, less space for jazz.

I don’t want to complain, because there is still a lot going on and there is a very enthusiastic community all over the world. I guess it’s gotten just harder for younger musicians and of course being “just” a good musician is not enough: You have to be able to deal with business affairs as well to get recognized.

ZS: If you hadn’t decided to pursue music, what would have you pursued as a career choice?

CI:  I would have studied geology, environmental science, or psychology.

ZS: What projects are you currently working on?

CI: After almost a year, I am thrilled to be on stage again on a regular basis. After a couple of local gigs, I am super excited to finally be able to present my current record with the trio featuring Raffaele Bossard and Ziv Ravitz with guest Michael Attias in Switzerland and the US from September 17 – 25. The tour will be continued in November and December in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and UK featuring Ben van Gelder, hoping there won’t be any funny bugs or other surprises – delta variant included – until then.

I am really looking forward to being back on my horn again. But I feel also really blessed and thankful for the support during the last year. I was able to keep myself busy over this time writing mostly for the Swiss Jazz Orchestra. My arrangements of the music of my other band, Pilgrim will be performed in mid-November in Bern, Chur, and Zurich, and will be a totally new and thrilling adventure.

Last but not least, I will be teaching in Zurich and working with the big band of Musikschule Konservatorium Zurich MKZ where we will have some nice adventures as well.

The US dates are:

  • 09/20 New Ghosts Series @ Bop Stop, Cleveland OH (US)
  • 09/21 Shapeshifter Lab, New York NY (US)
  • 09/22 Elysium Furnace Works, Beacon NY (US)
  • 09/23 Bob Shop, Rochester NY (US)
  • 09/24 jazz Shares @ Shea Theatre, Turner Falls MA (US)

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

CI: I have been sticking with the same gear pretty much over the past 15 years. I checked out a few horns and alternative reeds, but stayed with what I played in the end. I am in general not super-patient in checking new gear. I’d rather use my time for practicing and composing.

I had to change my mouthpiece (a Jody jazz 7*) two years ago because it was broken. It was a bit of an adventure and a pretty distinctive change to a refaced Otto Link Slant Signature with a much wider tip opening and softer reeds. The sound has a bit more overtones now, still powerful but centered, but with more scope in terms of articulation. The altissimo is a little harder to manage, but overtone exercises help a lot!



  • Tenor: Selmer Balanced Action
  • Soprano: Selmer Mark VI


  • Tenor: Vintage Selmer 2 screw.
  • Soprano: Otto Link 2 screw ligature



  • Tenor: Otto Link Slant Signature (10). This mouthpiece was refaced by Donat Fisch (Interlaken CH) and acoustically tuned by Anja Klara Kraft (Berlin DE)
  • Soprano: Otto Link Tone Edge (7*)