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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.

Highlights

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.

Like Danish band Eggs Laid By Tigers ZCP work on poetry by famous writers like legendary Arthur Rimbaud, Serbo-American Charles Simič and Berlin based poet Gabriele Guenther. There is no close harmony in ZCP but it is heterogeneous by way of rhythmically and percussively shaped multiple voice attacks. The intensity of its version of Rimbaud's "My Little Lovelies" spoke volumes. In ZCP's performance everything was in service of everything, splendidly interlocking—wild, but no unnecessary sprawl! And, of no less importance, the sound was just excellent!

Big sounds recaptured

As mentioned earlier moers festival presented as many as nine large ensembles all of different background, set up and repertoire. Michael Mantler's Jazz Composer's Orchestra dates back to the second half of the sixties when Mantler in his early twenties was involved in the originating New York 'free' jazz scene and its Jazz Composer's Guild. He founded the Jazz Composer's Orchestra (and his own label) and recorded two albums with a line-up of other young musicians: Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, Larry Coryell, and Carla Bley(his former wife), now all legendary names.

During the following decades Mantler created a rich catalogue of orchestral and other works released on his won Watt-label and later on ECM. He worked with orchestras from Austria, Germany, Denmark England and France and collaborated with Robert Wyatt, Marianne Faithful, Jack Bruce and Nick Mason. Recently Mantler had a look at the compositional material he had written as 24-year-old for that pioneering orchestra and started to envision fresh performances of this vintage stuff. He made some adaptations due to the fact that none of the original musicians would be available for a performance. In the updated score the electric guitar of Swedish guitarist Bjarne Roupé got a bigger role and a string section was added. The meanwhile 'classical' work was premiered and recorded two years ago at Vienna's well-known club Porgy & Bess with The Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band conducted by Christoph Cech, featuring Mantler on trumpet, the two vedettes Harry Sokal and Wolfgang Puschnig on saxophones, young Austrian piano magician David Helbock on piano and the Radio String Quartet from Vienna. It was released on ECM in 2014. It was the same line-up that played the moers festival.

From a historical perspective the sheer force and rich colors of the music were still impressing. And, knowing that it was groundbreaking, the beginning of a complete new, independent, post-Ellingtonian orchestral manoeuvre (that paved the way to the Escalator Over The Hill opus), its wild and cheerful, almost innocent flow was still sensible and still astonishes. Compared to the 25-year-olds who write and perform orchestral works now a lot has changed. So much more is available in many regards.

Sara McDonald fronted a large ensemble of students from the Cologne conservatory including a string section not as a jazz composer but as an original singer-songwriter in its own right what redefined all categories. Michael Mantler was one of the first to make the link in his collaborations with Robert Wyatt, Marianne Faithful, Jack Bruce and Nick Mason which partly also was connected to poetry (on the festival incorporated in the performance of Z-Country Paradise). McDonald who strongly operated along the lines of Suzanne Vega made use of the ensemble functionally and conducted it with great self-confidence. The ensemble supplied a considerable driving force speeding up and slowing down, pending and unfolding orchestral colors. It was very well crafted but it was still missing drama and gesture.

Lucerne Jazz Orchestra, a collection of young aspiring musicians from Switzerland, explored new sonorities by a genetic approach together with saxophonist Hayden Chisholm has performed on the festival four times from 1997 on. He is this year's Improviser in Residence of the city of Moers. It is an institution now in its seventh year and changing annually. The Improviser is a musician who lives and works in Moers for a year, immersing him/herself in the town's cultural life.

Other trumps were two large ensembles from Scandinavia, Mikko Innanen 10+ and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, the first an all-star affair with a strong leadership mark, the second an entity with varying line-ups, projects and guests coordinated and hold together by versatile reedist Eirik Hegdal.

Saxophonist Mikko Innanen (1978) is an internationally well-known mainstay of the Finnish jazz scene. His troupe is a joyful affair with great drive and dynamics, old school, young energy. To use a German expression: Spielfreu(n)de and Spielwitz. Innanen was listed as a 'Rising Star' in the baritone saxophone category in last year's Down Beat poll. Musically Innanen feels at home and is experienced in a great variety of styles and approaches. The orchestra he gathered with a doubling of all instruments (plus himself as saxophonist) included eleven musicians from among the best of the Finnish jazz scene, offering a broad stylistic range including beautiful Ellingtonian glows with Harry Carney-like excursions and an energetic dynamism full of quick and surprising turns. The ensemble rendered a perplexing, gorgeous variety of pieces with outstanding soloing especially by renowned trumpeter Verneri Pohjola. In one hour you get one of the best and most enjoyable lectures on jazz history you can imagine.

This time the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (TJO) featured vocalist Sofia Jernberg from Sweden and Norwegian folk fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva. Fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva is an award-winning young Norwegian folk-musician. He was awarded the Spelemansprisen, the Norwegian Grammy, in 2010 and was chosen Folk Musician Of The Year in 2013. He plays in five folk-groups but is not confined to the folk world as manifested by this collaboration with TJO and Jernberg. Vocalist Sofia Jernberg grew up in Sweden, Ethiopia and Vietnam. She is active in a wide field of music. She has worked with the likes of Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frederik Ljungkvist and Sten Sandell. She co-leads and composes for modern jazz octet Paavo, contemporary Lieder quartet The New Songs and has a duo with Norwegian cellist Lene Grenager.

TJO had a strong Norwegian folk-oriented line-up with four string-players including two Hardanger fiddles, three horns, two drums and piano. Most remarkable were the combinations and contrasts between the folk sonorities, the indigenous singing and fiddling, and the jazz excursions. Frictions were used productively, built in, turned round, countered and contra-ed. No overplaying but always to the point expansions from the flow. The music ran through dance pieces including polkas and folk songs wonderfully arranged and performed with great sophistication. TJO rendered a unique piece of music, which would not be realizable with a small group.

The ngoni is a Malian hunter lute that Bassekou Kouyaté from Mali uses to produce loud dance music. Koujaté also had a large ensemble and a big sound. In his music there were no contrasts as in the music of TJO but rather enlargement of certain elements, speeding up and amplification. Through that it had strong pop affinities. Its danceable music was an adequate (and successful) way to finish the festival with.

Overdosing or breakthrough

Reedist Colin Stetson beat a clearly recognizable track through the festival, a track that caused outspoken comments and controversy. Five features are characteristic of the music he performed in various line-ups: multiphonics, minimalism/repetitiveness, continuity/incessant action, speed and loudness (volume). These properties are closely linked and interdependent except maybe the loudness produced by amplification. When Stetson performed, the volume was extremely loud—not because of the huge sound of his instruments, the bass saxophone or the contrabass clarinet, but in first place because of the even extra loud amplification. It entailed a considerable loss of dynamics and color. A compulsive hidden expectation or even rule seemed at work here. This extreme loudness can be impressive once in a while but as a continuous feature it has dulling effects. However it is possible that people also like to be overpowered ad infinitum. This kind of loudness may also be motivated by the will to go into the sensation of extremes in order make a mark and push the envelope. In a way it works this way in reality. It attracts and causes opposites, a dichotomy in 'the new thing': extremely loud and dense or extremely soft, quiet and spacious.

Stetson's athletic approach worked out the best in the duo with Neufeld and in his solo-concert at the end of the festival where he also played alto saxophone. Contrary to the established image of Stetson connected to the bass saxophone the alto part in his solo program was the best of all his performances. It made a good contrast, had nuance and brightness of sound.

The pairing of bass saxophone/contrabass clarinet and violin seems odd but is a golden combination when amplified adequately. The protrusive singing and haunting qualities of Neufeld's playing paired with the heavy (walrus) groans and long yells of Stetson's voice created an impressive sound landscape startling and shivering. However, it undermined itself by its endless repetitiveness. It may open up new possibilities in pop-and rock music but it is does not lead to a breakthrough in contemporary music or jazz. It has tapped into potentials of jazz and contemporary music of the past decennia. As such it is a skillfully condensed and intelligently formatted recapitulation of it.

Stetson has designed a format that is quite demanding for a musician to perform every time. In order to go on challenging himself he invited two fierce musicians, namely power bassist Trevor Dunn and power drummer Greg Fox, a disciple of Milford Graves. So he would have to work hard to be able to cope with their strength. It seems almost a cult to act in that perspective. However more of the same or competition of powerfulness does not guarantee a sensational or satisfying outcome. And it didn't here. Every musician was impressive but as a whole it was not.

To perform a re-imagined version of Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, the 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' can be considered a venture. As Stetson adheres to a similar esthetics, it becomes more plausible to go into it. Here the same question arises: is more of the same really more? The performance proved it was not. No doubt, there were impressive moments through the big deep sound and especially through the singing of Megan Stetson, the percussion of Greg Fox and the recurrent chiming of the electric guitar of Ryan Ferreira in it. But due to deficient synchronization of the musicians and problems with the amplification of such heavy sounds the music did not gain deeper focus. Instead the sounds became centrifugal more and more, fleeing into all directions. Happily it did not fall apart. Through common efforts musicians and technicians succeeded in keeping to the line and coming to an adequate saving closure. Maybe a significant detail: there was no silence after the fading of the sound but immediate applause.

Quite a different affair was the likewise loud threesome of trumpeter Peter Evans, electric bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Max Jaffe, named Pulverize The Sound. They did the opposite of what Stetson did. They not only shredded ruthlessly, they even tried to get it all pulverized. After the musicians had left the stage a curving and smoldering sound cloud was left that was difficult to quench. Multiphonics, continuity/incessant action, speed and loudness (volume) was here too but minimalism/repetitiveness was lacking. Contrary to the measured and well-balanced manner of Stetson's layering Evans spit his sharp edged, colliding chains of tones in high tempo, staccato, smacking, puffing and cooing. The sounds came like a drumfire, unstoppable, fluttering, thumping, pumping, whimpering and resurrecting again and again -not uplifting but radical. Both, Stetson and Evans, were on the trip of circular breathing, however with different instruments, different approaches, different outcome. The rhythmically intense music of Evans, Dahl and Jaffe was not pop/rock affine but had its very own purgatorial potential in jazz perspective.

Opposites and shifts

As mentioned earlier contrast and confrontation are essential characteristics if the festival and it is not only the contrast of extremely loud and dense and extremely soft, quiet and spacious that counts. Just through the presence of many large ensembles and extremely loud volume of some music a fairly unknown trio from Thessaloniki with one musician of Syrian origin, one of New Zealand origin and one of Greek origin attracted some extra attention. The three musicians, Ziad Rajab, ûd, James Wylie, saxophone and Kostas Anastasidis, percussion, entered the stage with caution and conviction. They started self-effacing and immediately won the hearts when Rajab started singing أغنية in Arabic. He sang full of compassion and resignation with characteristic syllabic elongations and enigmatic smile. Together with his emphatic fellow musician he led the audience to some higher place -a beautifully simple alternation satisfying a need.

The Norwegian duo sPacemoNkey, sandwiched between Risser's White Desert Orchestra and Pulverize The Sound, navigated between gospel and running off the rails seeking for improvisatory balance and openings. Contrary to the loud-quiet-dichotomy pianist Morten Qvenild and drummer Gard Nilssen went to and fro, through manifold great dynamic states. They took a high risk, got closer and closer but did not really gain the ultimate momentum this time.

Eivind Opsvik is a master of the ostinato or more adequately termed a master of the bassonato. Already in the morning session with drummer Gard Nilssen and pianist David Helbock he showed how imperturbable he used it and with which impressive major (group) effects. With his Overseas quintet from New York that opened Sunday's evening the magic of it unfolded in manifold ways. It is a game of uncovering and hiding, up and down, slow and fast, outburst and focus, a game as exciting as entertaining, a game of an almost ritualistic character. At moments the music enters into heartfelt enchanting melodies and a few moments further the rough and brittle side appear: unpredictable shifts and transitions, great dynamics and dialectics.

Next

The last sounds faded, the installations were broken up and Hayden Chisholm will take over the forthcoming months to initiate and ignite challenging and enjoyable music in town. And, Artistic Director Reiner Michalke will have his ears, eyes, bodymind travel over the globe to discover artists and sounds for the next new brew. Next year's festival will be held over Whitsun 2016, May 13-16.

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