Moers Festival 2015

Henning Bolte By

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Moers Festival
Moers, Germany
May 22-25, 2015

After the great changes and new beginnings of last year's edition, this year the festival entered the phase of refinement and consolidation. The special vibe is still flourishing. The festival got an important award, the prize of the Europe Jazz Network (EJN) for Adventurous Programming. Monika Grütter, the Minister of State and German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, members of the Federal State Parliaments and the Mayor of Moers, attended the award ceremony.

EJN, the European association of producers, presenters and supporting organizations who specialize in creative music, contemporary jazz, and improvised music, awards a European promoter who exemplifies the values of EJN and skillfully succeeds to create visionary and fascinating musical programs for the audience. The moers festival, one of the oldest and most original jazz festivals in Europe was unanimously chosen by an independent jury of jazz professionals and EJN members for the festival's commitment to always innovate and experiment while remaining faithful to its identity. Previous winners of the EJN Award for Adventurous Programming have been: Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto (2014), Amsterdam's Bimhuis (2013), and Dublin's 12 Points Festival (2012).

The Moers area

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. The Festival, a four-day annual event always taking place on Pentecost, 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. On the festival website, the festival blog and 'Behind The Scene' are some particularly interesting sections.

The moers festival

The well-known festival, founded in 1971 and reshaped in 2005, now lacks the word 'jazz' in its name. In three decennia the name 'Moers' grew into a synonym for cutting edge music of a broader interest and acclaim so that its name could be reshaped into the neologism 'moers festival' (with lower-case letters). It freed from the programming-compromises of customary classical 'jazz' festivals and constituted corresponding expectations of its visitors and audiences. Indicated positively moers festival presents every kind of challenging, cutting-edge and vital music crossing or leaving behind all kind of mental boundaries. Every year anew it obliges to operate along a consequent line setting the right new vigorous and pugnacious accents. It does not aim at allaying people but makes them focus on fractious, unruly, astounding, amazing, elevating, uplifting and deeper cathartic experiences. This can be accomplished by a variety of musical means and means of performance. Contrast and controversy is one of the main pillars of moers. Through contrast the audience gets chances to rebalance, calm down or lift up, identify, reconsider etc. moers festival triggers stark, heavy contrasts all through in a productive way. Also moers festival presents 'only' one stream of concerts. You simply have to decide when to join in and when to opt out—no escape to other acts or chasing after names.

Again this year's realization was a highly concentrated affair of full force, full drive, full swing, full voice, full sound and full person. During one night and three days moers festival presented 19 concerts plus three night shows (RocketNumberNine, Born in Flamez and Dean Blunt), three morning sessions at the local music school and three night concerts at the small venue Die Röhre (Röhrereihe) with two German Bands (Zodiak Trio, Roman Babik Urban Wedding Band) and French-British band In Bed With.

All in all nine large ensembles performed and on the whole thirteen vocalists were involved. The contributing musicians and groups came from ten countries: Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, France, Mali, New Zealand, US and Canada. (Röhrereihe). All in all nine large ensembles performed and on the whole thirteen vocalists were involved. Colin Stetson acted as an artists in residence and performed in all kind of formats/line-ups from solo to duo, trio and 12tet. He brought in a series of musicians of his choice. A larger collection of the concerts are documented on on the German-French TV channel ARTE TV and will be accessible HERE until November 23 of this year.

The music varied from (extremely) loud (Stetson/Neufeld, The Jones Family Singers, Pulverize The Sound, Stetson/Dunn/Fox, Stetson/Gorecki's "Sorrow," Stetson solo, spPacemoNkey, Gratkowski Z-Country Paradise, Bassekou Kouyate, The Nest), big and bright sound (Lucerne Jazz Orchestra, Eve Risser White Desert Orchestra, Michael Mantler w/Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band, Mikko Innanen 10+, Eivind Opsvik Overseas, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra featuring Olav Mjelva & Sofia Jernberg, Sara McDonald, & Big Band, The Baylor Project) to whispering quietness and space (Ziad Rajab, Eve Risser White Desert Orchestra , Trondheim Jazz Orchestra featuring Olav Mjelva & Sofia Jernberg, Eivind Opsvik Overseas). Most acts were based on/at home at free improvisation traditions and transformed it (Stetson, Mantler, Gratkowski, Risser, Innanen, sPacemoNkey). A considerable part was also based in folk music (The Jones Family Singers, Ziad Rajab, Trondheim Jazz Orchestra featuring Olav Mjelva & Sofia Jernberg, Bassekou Kouyate), (modern) classical music, especially minimal music (Eve Risser White Desert Orchestra, Colin Stetson, Michael Mantler, Lucerne Jazz Orchestra) as well as pop and rock music (Sara McDonald, Colin Stetson, Frank Gratkowski Z-Country Paradise).

As already said contrast and controversy is one of the main ingredients of moers festival. There was plenty of contrast in the type of music but there are still more contrasts in people's preferences, tastes, sympathy and antipathy, expectations and desires. What is so special for Moers with its moers factor: with its selection and sequencing it forces people to go into the music, surrendering or not but always think and talk about their (dis)approval and (re)consider their attitudes and choices. The music at moers festival is not one of groundless affirmation. It is one of surprise, disturbance, shock, unknown heaviness as well as unknown lightness, beyond diehard expectations and entrenched patterns of perception.

It actualized immediately in the first night. It started with the generative sound explorations of the Lucerne Jazz Orchestra from Switzerland, went to the weird Teutonic sound beats of The Nest and the powering Stetson/Neufeld duo, a reprise of its appearance at last year's night program, to the vocal storms of The Jones Family Singers.

With its six vocalist The Jones Family Singers had a big potential to tear off the roof. But loudness, especially the bassist's loud hoeing became almost fatal to the music. The voices were immured and had to work hard to set it all free. At the end when Bishop Fred A. Jones Sr. took the lead they were liberated such that you could happily get an idea of their joint power. It appeared that the sound system got in trouble when 'too much' sound came from the stage.


Two performances not only shook up entrenched patterns of expectations, watching and listening but also brilliantly succeeded in taking the audience as a whole to another, higher place of imagination, feeling and empathy—even surpassing expectations. It was Eve Risser's ten-piece White Desert Orchestra with guesting vocalist Sofia Jernberg (from Sweden) and it was Frank Gratkowski's Z-Country Paradise with outstanding vocalist Jelena Kuljic. Young pianist/flutist Risser who just released her first solo album Des pas sur la neige on Clean Feed performed earlier on moers festival with the Donkey Monkey Duo with Yuko Oshima. She runs the French label Umlaut, has won several awards, and was a member of the Orchestre National de Jazz (2009 to 2013). White Desert Orchestra is a new ensemble that premiered at this year's Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris. Inspired by geophonics and biophonics of Arizona's Grand Canyon (by Debussy, Messiaen and more), Risser, an effervescent musician, conducted all four movements in all aspects with character and great spirit. Amongst others she transposed the approach of Christian Wallumrød and the Norwegian-French group Dans Les Arbres to the level and the special colors of her own large ensemble comprising flute (Sylvaine Hélary), bassoon (Sophie Bernardo), acoustic bass guitar (Fanny Lasfargues), two saxophones/clarinets (Antonin-Tri Hoang, Benjamin Dousteyssier), trumpet and trombone (Eivind Lønning, Fidel Fourneyron), guitar (Julien Desprez) and drums (Sylvain Darrifourcq). The first movement started with very well crafted and performed echoes of the canyon fading in a kind of marche funèbre. A remote melody gradually arose and grew into a hymnal closing. Deep and broad space was masterfully shaped in the course of time by a accumulation of tone gestures and drones. The second movement contrasted by its Threadgillian character. Risser went on with "Eclats" showcasing a brilliant solo on baritone saxophone by Dousteyssier and closed with the magnificent "Metamorphique" with guesting vocalist Sofia Jernberg from Stockholm.

At a certain moment in this last piece the ensemble got some vague response from not clearly identifiable people in the audience in the darkened hall. It could be expressions of mimicking disapproval or some selfish action taken by some unruly members of the audience. However slowly a vocal wave emerged from those 'usisus,' unidentified singing subjects, who then gathered in subgroups. With the increasing vocal wave the subgroups moved towards the stage to unite with the playing musicians. In the end 90 musicians filled the stage. Last year the festival had 'only' 44 double basses on stage. This year 80 singers from the region participated and had to rehearse in advance. Nonetheless the festival succeeded in keeping it secret. It worked, as a complete surprise, and rounded up the music in a magnificent, unique way. It was a wonderful heartfelt apotheosis of musical movements that had started from the sounds of winds whirling, sighing along the rocks and drifting across the canyon. Risser's performance not only succeeded in creating a rich and captivating new blend but also united an audience of different ages, listening experiences and tastes.

Quite different but equally surprising and stunning: Frank Gratkowski's Z-Country Paradise. Very loose but edgy drumming by Christian Marien in Jim Black mode, slightly offset electric bass work of brief plucks by genre-crossing musician Oliver Potratz, then great Kalle Kalima's Finn noir, flowery, humming and shrieking guitar, reed-master Frank, the Gratkowski on alto sax and bass clarinet—rarely an apt tone, adequate sound or melodic run has a chance to escape him—and in the center multi-mode vocals by eye-catching gender bending Jelena Kuljic. As a stage personality she was tremendous, one-of-a-kind with associations of la Dietrich and Annette Peacock.

ZCP is a kind of German reply to Ribot's Ceramic Dog. ZCP rocks heavily the pendulum way, veined, conjured up and driven forward by Kuljic's urgent, brilliantly articulated, 'swordfishtromboned' Sprechgesang. The group uses rock and rocks heavily, expands and also take it easily from the Colemans, Ornette Coleman and Steve Coleman.


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