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Moers Festival 2014

Moers Festival 2014
Henning Bolte By

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Moers Festival
Moers , Germany
June, 6-9, 2014

Moers is a small city of about 100,000 inhabitants at the periphery of the former mining and industrial Ruhrpott area in Germany, about 40 km from the Dutch border and near the cities of Duisburg and Düsseldorf. Moers Festival, a four-day annual event always taking place on White Sunday, is a special festival with a rich history and firm traditions. Originally named Moers International New Jazz Festival, it grew into a remarkable cultural enterprise through which the city has become world-famous among musicians, music aficionados, festival directors and cultural entrepreneurs.

Great changes, new beginnings, stable future

This year the festival had to relocate to a hall to a new place on the periphery of the city, and make a new start with this year's 19 main acts spread over four days and nights. Those 19 main acts were augmented by daily sessions starting at 11:00 in the morning, night sessions starting after midnight and special concerts in the dark. The morning sessions brought together festival artists, musicians from the region and other guest musicians. This year's edition was a big challenge due to the relocation of the festival activities and the task to resettle everything, establish the new surroundings and make everything work. It is still an event where visitors may stay during the festival in their mobile homes and tents next to the festival hall.

Friday night

The festival opened with reminiscences of legendary bassist Peter Kowald (1944-2002), originating from the close-by city of Wuppertal, cofounder of the festival and closely related to its heydays during the '80s and '90s. It became a very special thing, initiated and organized by Cologne double bassist Sebastian Gramms, who played Kowald's bass: standing in three rows, 44 double bassists (mainly from the region)—including Mark Dresser and Dieter Manderscheid—performed together, starting with themes by Kowald. It took a lot of organizational effort to bring Bassmasse, as it was called, into being. To rehearse and perform with this amount of big violins, more than forty parking lot spots were required, for instance. Daring as it doubtlessly was to do this as the very first concert in a completely new concert hall, it set the tone, succeeded in overcoming limitations and crossing borders. It ultimately turned out to be a triumph for the music, the instrument, the musicians and the audience.

44 double basses onstage is spectacular but not necessarily a spectacle. When Dutch drummer Han Bennink entered the stage, however, people expected a spectacle. And: they got it, generally speaking. In Moers, he hit the stage together with young Dutch pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland. As an artist and musician Bennink does not just play his tune or drum his rhythms, he transforms found realities percussively. And that's what he did effectively and in a highly enjoyable way for the cheering audience in Moers. Actually, when you get an audience that sympathetic, the musicians couldn't help but do a good job. Bennink then acted as many people would like to have acted themselves. He is a tough partner for every duo.

Hoogland is a homeboy (of the youngest generation) who acts in the same vein. Even as Bennink was expanding his work field, so, too, did Hoogland during their performance. He switched from piano to his heavily amplified and distorted clavinet and employed an armada of megaphones. Whereas other musicians add a lot of textural noise to their music, Bennink and Hoogland relied on a quite old tradition of artfully building up obstacles that they had to cope with in inventive ways to make their way into playing bits of music. Together with some of Thelonious Monk's pivotal lines as companions, both became entangled in a highly idiosyncratic and amusing way during their stage ride.

From 44, then, two musicians and, finally, to just one musician with an ordinary acoustic guitar on the big stage: Marc Ribot. Ribot, too, has his characteristic idiosyncratic way. He is a master of overshooting the mark in a highly precise and productive way, and he is also a master of being inside and outside the piece of music, very closely connected. In Moers, he crept into the ingrained role of singer-songwriter, thereby derailing the pattern of the old protest song. Sometimes there was a sketchy song, sometimes a creased, scrunched up form of prototypes for '60s protest songs (the far echoes of P.F. Sloan's "Eve Of Destruction," for instance), more or less unfinished.

Picking and strumming his guitar, Ribot talked and sang his way through a series of serious topics, serious enough to express a protest ("The Empire State Building," "My Body Is Lying," "The Dying Cowboy," "Santa Claus," The Internet"). A special aspect of the Ribot-parlando: his rendition of Bob Dylan's legendary "Masters Of War." First talking about the great feeling of playing a D-minor chord when he was a young guy ("Masters," from 1963, leans on the British folksong "Nottamun Town" which is in a major key; Dylan's minor gave it the definite doom-struck effect). Ribot ended with a hyper-rapid recitation of the song's lyrics. Although confusing or bothering parts of the audience, it was very much a Ribot thing: productively escaping the preset gusto framing, supplying food for thought and readjusting perceptions.

A big contrast, then, with the last group of the first night, the 16-member Ricky-Tick Big Band from Helsinki, augmented by Julkinen Sana (Public Address). Julkinen Sana, a highly infectious rap trio of acclaimed Finnish hip hop pioneers consists of Paleface, Redrama and Tommy Lindgren (Father Metro), The Ricky-Tick BB—founded in 2010 by its leader, guitarist/composer/producer Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen, now residing in Berlin—is an all-star big band of top young jazz musicians from the younger Finish generation. It was revealed, very quickly, as being more than just a dynamic and groovy modern Big Band with some vocalists as guests. All three vocalists were natural born, high energy entertainers who made immediately contact with the audience, let it participate and shared with it the joy of the strong groove and the bright Big Band sound, stirring it up, conquering it and altogether making its first appearance outside Finland a surprisingly strong overall experience.

Saturday

The afternoon started with the truly heavy PNLU, the newly formed large ensemble from titanic Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Moers artistic director Reiner Michalke saw the first appearance of this ensemble at last summer's Molde International Jazz Festival in Norway—an utterly convincing performance, according to many witnesses (this author included). It united nine strong and powerful musicians of the younger generation from Norway and Sweden from different upcoming groups, with Oslo's well-known, hardcore electronics and graphics man Lasse Marhaug.

The Moers performance started with the last piece of the ensemble's Molde concert, in such full overdrive that it first seemed that all the richness of the layers would be swallowed or buried. But the opposite happened in a gripping way, working out overwhelmingly as it became a true brand. A crucial role was played by the powerful and lengthy soaring of baritone saxophonist Klaus Holm. The horn section—normally consists of trumpeter Thomas Johansson, trombonist Mats Äleklint Quartet, tubaist Børre Mølstad, and saxophonists Kasper Værnes and Klaus Holm—had to compensate for Äleklint, one of the most prolific young trombonists of the moment, who could not make it to this concert. Johansson, Mølstad, Værnes, and especially Holm, did it a bravura. They were carried and propelled, with heavy fire, by guitarist Ketil Gutvik, bassists Jon Rune Strøm and Christian Meaas Svendsen, and Andreas Wildhagen as a second drummer.

The whole convincing and cutting performance had just one flaw: it lasted 20 seconds too long. In PNLU a lot of new things unite in strong and convincing shape, on a new level, firing inside and outside, making a strong mark.

It went on with drums but, by way of contrast with intimate duo work of Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky. Baron, a regular Moers performer, was a well-known musician to festival visitors, whereas Schulkowsky was the dark horse for most of them, maybe also because she mainly works in the field of contemporary composed music. But Michalke is one of the few festival directors who is unafraid of unknown airs (and also not creating extra baskets for it). Also, to some part of the audience, a whole set with drums seemed to promise not enough real music.

It is still astonishing that the drums, one of the most primal and ancient means of human musical expression prior to articulated human language, was perceived only as a synchronizing driving mechanism, or as a break-filler. This perception has been reinforced by the mass consumption of music as a recorded artifact. The richness of sound and drumming all the time around us, is perceived mainly subconsciously, and most of it is not paid attention to or really taken in. A drum or percussion discussion takes place in the continuum between the two aforementioned spheres, and Baron and Schulkowsky gradually moved from the more familiar to the unfamiliar, picking their audience up with modest playful grooves and leading them into a more complex shimmering, layer of sounds including some wonderful rain music. It was a highly enjoyable affair, a great example of female and male modes and the way sound-making can respectfully interlock.

During a festival day with concerts going on from 11 am until long after midnight, it is almost impossible to stay permanently on track, with the same degree of presence and attention. The Paris-based French/Belgian/Italian power trio of trumpeter Jean Louis Aymeric Avice, bassist Joachim Florent and drummer Francesco Pastacaldi did not find me in receiving mode. It was a loud affair, worth checking out by those who liked its uncompromising, right in-your-face music, last heard on Uranus (Coax Records).

Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) is a longstanding French institution, an ensemble with a strictly limited working term, changing leadership—and, for every working period—new members as well. The current installation, under the leadership of guitarist Olivier Benoit, is a bit atypical because it also had a couple of well-established names among its ten members—including bassist BrunoChevillon, drummer Eric Echampard and pianist Sophie Agnel—beside highly impressive and promising talents such as saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and violinist Theo Ceccaldi Trio.

ONJ, as an instrument of its periodic leader, has always been a special tool for creating, producing and performing "big" works. Big, not only in the sense of orchestration and extended lineup, but also in terms of concept, references and projections. The first album from the present Benoit-led installation was titled Europe Paris, a work of five extended parts totaling more than 90 minutes.

Benoit's 11-piece ONJ presented a strong architectural type of music full of sensationalism, worn-out grandeur and strange, lingering wisps of sound, this was deeply serious music of far-reaching sound surfaces, huge columns and deep corridors—spaces well-suited for erratic, wandering sounds. It was also music full of ostinatos and ostinato-like structures, grandissimo riffs, and driving, accelerating and unfolding grooves perfectly suited for sophisticated soloing. The music did not miss its impressive effect on the audience.

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Jazz Near Dusseldorf
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