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Moers Festival 2015

Henning Bolte By

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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.

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