May 18-21, 2018
The long-established Moers Festival has undergone several changes in recent years. Its distinctive circus top tent was retired in 2013, making way for a custom-designed Halle to house most of the main concerts. Then, two years ago, the festival director and programmer switched from Reiner Michalke to Tim Isfort, continuing the strong hand of individualist programming, of astute artistic selections. Isfort is a musician, and a local resident, growing up in Moers, and having a strong feel for the importance of the festival on local ground.
Last year's long weekender had a low international profile, but in 2018, it is now exuding a palpable strength of renewal, an expansion and confidence that continues to present a heady line-up of performers that could be said to loosely spring from the jazz world, although mostly hailing from its more unusual quarters. As with the fest-of-old, there are many acts that lurk in the spheres of rock and electronic music, and no shortage of players who are committed to completely free improvisation. Back when it started, in 1971, the festival was more directly intent on free jazz as its core, and in 2018, it's still fundamentally following that trail of unshackled invention. Now, though, fresh generations are applying similar attitudes, but with different instrumentations, and altered genre forms.
The old concept of the extended outdoor surrounding free festival has been intensified in 2018, with many more sets being played on stages around the local parkland. There has also been a spread into the actual city of Moers, a couple of miles away, but the reality of being in the field is that there are so many crucial sets happening around the main Halle that such diversions can prove risky, in terms of losing valuable transfer time.
The best strategy was to remain in the Halle, or saunter out to the nearby Festivaldorf open air stage, and still get to greedily consume most of the prime bands. In the mornings, we had the 11am Moers Sessions, where various performers were blended together in surprise groupings, girded for hardcore improvising. Even though, without using the 'jazz' word, the Moers Festival is mostly rooted in that very form, and its improvisational siblings, the weekender's exceptions tend to stand out as being from other outsider genres.
The eccentric individualist Richard Dawson is ostensibly a folk troubadour, but his realisation of the tradition is surely judged to be too skewed from the norm to be welcome at most roots music festivals. But here at Moers, alongside Sunday's profusion of suddenly appearing garden gnomes, he is welcome. Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north east of England, Dawson's song-structures are very traditional, in a sense. Completely involved with the narrative form, and acting as a diary of experience. Since he began touring with a band, Dawson has unavoidably lost some of the stark unpredictability of his solo act, but this has been replaced by the lurching gait of a group keeping pace with his probably hard-to-follow phrasings. He's stepped closer to Captain Beefheart
, from Kevin Coyne. It must be stated: the oldies are still the best, as the epic (and most enduringly striking) "The Vile Stuff" remains his ultimate tale. The more recent historical imaginings sound more conventional, but only in comparison with earlier ditties. Dawson, at times, caught hold of a live wire intensity, magnetising the crowd from the Hall's second, almost 'in-the-round' stage, adapting his routine to steadily face in different directions, closely addressing the audience in an acknowledgement of the situation. That might sound like a simple act, but there are many artists who tend to ignore their glaringly obvious situation in the world.
There were a couple of more mainline jazz sets during the festival, but sadly, the large scale closing set on Saturday night was poorly placed. Following a crammed day of sometimes extreme sounds, from 11am onwards, the WDR Big Band
lost out due to their around midnight placement. With the revered drummer Peter Erskine
guesting, and arranger Vince Mendoza
conducting his music, this was technically spruced, but so slick and smooth that it tended to drift through the hall in neutered fashion. There wasn't much tension, or even much in the way of actual swing, or soloing punch. The afternoon would have been a more promising time for such sounds, leading up to the increased power, dirt and surprise of the evening sounds.
Trumpeter Ralph Alessi
sounded comparatively mainline, but his This Against That (sharing the front line with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane
) appeared at a good time, first on the main stage at 2.57pm (one Moers trait is the adoption of irregular start-times for sets, though certainly not all of these were actually obeyed). Once their steam began to hiss, Alessi and Coltrane began to issue solos that fed off each other's cumulative engagement, but even so, this music demanded the benefits of a pause and a second set, theoretically most at home in the confines of a jazz club.
There was a rare opportunity to catch Didier Malherbe
(soprano saxophones, flutes, duduk), the veteran multi-instrumentalist chiefly known for his membership of Gong. In the end, it transpired that wordsmith (of his own invented language, apparently) Tom Liwa made Mikrosaivo an all- round intriguing experience. He and Daniel Maskow played subtle electronics on their tiny Aira TB3s, bringing together tech and ancient folksy vibrations, a four-piece roster completed by percussionist Giuseppe Mautone. Curious minglings of indecipherable storytelling ensued, with Malherbe prancing or mournful, adding a purist acoustic breath quotient.
Oxbow are a fine, old school tough American sombre-rock crew, but they've never fully ensnared this writer. However, the combination with a collaborating Peter Brötzmann
brought out a third character that only exists when these two parts are mixed. There was a particularly fine rapport between the saxophonist and Oxbow's singer Eugene S. Robinson, both of these artists emanating their own types of tough directness. Vocals and saxophone existed together in complete harmony, as Brötzmann filled in phrases in-between Robinson's lines, creating a dialogue of doom, and a freshly rotting breath for jazz rock. The other three guitar/bass/drums members didn't particularly join in with the free jazz spirit, but the encore found six-stringer Niko Wenner heading towards a free-er form. This set was mostly concerned with dark moods and implied threat, with Brötzmann displaying remarkable stamina, at the grand-old-aged end of the street.
The Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris
was involved with two of the weekend's best sets (both delivered by sextets), firstly with 2000, and then in the horn ranks of the mostly Dutch Spinifex. 2000 also featured Steve Swell
(trombone), Wilbert de Joode
(bass), Elisabeth Coudoux
(cello), Michael Vatcher
(drums) and saxophonist Jan Klare
, this latter almost-local being the organiser of the daily Moers Sessions. 2000 blended free stippling and lurching anthems of unrest, with Swell leading a Mingus-descended shout-groove, emerging out of a dispersed terrain, Maris responding with finely-crafted blues curlicues. This group relished their extreme sensitivity to crisp textures.
Spinifex shot their load more directly in the face. With three horns karate-chopping through dense pointy constructions, the entire set sped over massively intricate angularities, with guitarist Jasper Stadhouders
being a revelation, car-crashing out of the Arto Lindsay
academy of bent metal dismantling and strafed clatter, all of this happening across precision bass-and-drum synco-tension. There was something about the Festivaldorf stage, just outside the Hall, where its free-for-all status attracted a motley gathering intent on partying, amplification smoking, group minds hitting that locked-in groove state of ritual humankind music-interchanging. On the same stage, came Fossile 3+1 (clarinet by Rudi Mahall
), Horse Lords, Irreversible Entanglements (without vocalist Moor Mother) and, incongruously, Murder Murder, a Canadian punkgrass outfit.
Fossile 3+1 featured the compositions of bassman Sebastian Gramss
, Mahall acting as the active soloing frontman, with Etienne Nillesen (drums) and the guesting +1 Philip Zoubek, his upright piano literally rolled up right to the edge of the stage, still perched on its ambulatory wagon. Parts of their set were rooted in an almost traditional jazz, but interspersed with frequent flying off the handle into more wayward moves.
Horse Lords are a Baltimore quartet with rock instrumentation, playing what could be termed riff-systems sounds, jerking from Saharan desert rock abrasiveness towards a Steve Reichian interlocking of rhythm patterns, particularly via his drumming and clapping works. Delivering with a psychedelic palette, the entire combo sounded like one gigantic mbira thumb-piano, edged with rattling distortion. Sometimes Andrew Bernstein blew tenor saxophone into the mix, at others he became the second drummer, adding to the complicated piledrive network. This was the intelligent manic contortionist's ideal dance band, and the Festivaldorf set managed to surmount an already gripping perfromance inside the Hall on the previous day. This outdoor gig crackled with a monstrous ritual energy not often witnessed in such an uncut state.
Murder Murder (firstly, not an imaginative name, secondly, not that relevant to their songs, thirdly, why the repeat?) might discourage folks with their moniker, but fortunately their lusty stagecraft cancelled out this poor choice, as these Ontarians careened against each other with amplified bluegrass axes, double-speed songs and voluminous beards. They were the perfect revellers for the last few hours of the festival, the final day having lost some of its crowd, but gained in the intensity emanating from the remaining numbers.
NYC's Irreversible Entanglements became more of a blowing unit, for their Festivaldorf set, the absence of Camae Ayewa (voice/electronics) allowing them to appear in a more conventionally unconventional jazz-rooted form, but with added rhythmic fisticuffs on the bass, courtesy of tough-pushing Luke Stewart
. On the following day, Moor Mother appeared to offer the full Irreversible Entanglements experience, making up the five-piece line-up.
In the main Hall, Ethan Iverson
unveiled another Bad Plus alternative contender, the pianist joined by a pair of female recorder players, entering a moderne composition realm, but looking like they were all improvising. Iverson also joined in with one of the Moers Sessions, late on the Sunday night, in the atmospheric Bollwerk club, which had the feel of being a large container unit sitting on a railway platform, even if it wasn't. Here, Rob Mazurek
crackled his pocket trumpet, and Alexander Hawkins
rose above inaudibility, for a jagged race across his keys. Their improvisation sneaked from faintness to a fierce, ramming aggression, before heading into another tentative creep.
In another potential Bad Plus line-up, to compete with the official Orrin/Reid/Dave threesome, Iverson closed out the session with a surprisingly mainline jazz trio, partnered by Luke Stewart (electric bass) and Chad Taylor
(drums). Following on from the accepted freeform adventuring of the preceding pair of sets, this piano trio formation found Iverson displaying his beboppin' chops, standing up to deliver greater intricate pounding, pulling his pardners into a roiling maelstrom of rhythm. Iverson weighed in with a warped Monkish boogie woogie roll, then maintained a minimal figure whilst Taylor soloed, subsequently developing a train-rollin' motion. Chiming piano and a slinking vibe created a Latin exotica feel, with the pace steadily gaining, until Iverson brought his soloing to a crashing halt, allowing Stewart a prickly bass solo to close. Their set had the effect of sounding experimental when sitting beside the 'normal' freedoms of the preceding improvisations, providing a giant rush of after-midnight hardcore avant swing.
Preceding Moers Sessions featured combinations with various members of Talibam!, Spinifex, Irreversible Entanglements, and many more stray players. A notable highlight was the free jazz trio of John Dikeman
(tenor saxophone), Gonçalo Almeida (electric bass) and Kevin Shea
(drums). It was liberating indeed to vibrate in sympathy to high volume free jazz, rolling out across a vast park-space, on a sunny pre-noon outdoor stage, as Almeida hit his fuzz footpedal, and Dikeman soloed interminably, and with continual invention, piling up the circular blasts, Shea keeping up an insectoid scuttle and flash, all three attaining complete resonance with with low greenery and high blue skies.
Photo credit: André Symann