For a spring weekend each year, the celebrated, artistically left-leaning Moers Jazz Festival unfolds in an epic-sized circus tent, in one corner of a park which is otherwise taken over by a Woodstock-esque crush of tent campers and shambling rows of vendors on the same weekend. It has been thus for nearly four decades, going back to the hale ’70s, a period when avant-garde American artists were hosted, toasted and sometimes recorded on the Moers Music record label.
Fast forward to the last five years, and next generation artistic director Reiner Michalke has done sturdy work in bringing a new vitality and international ear back to the festival. This May’s festival feast, a healthy, diversified flow of about twenty shows in four days, and with sideline features such as the all-improv “morning sessions” and “concerts in the dark” – featured non-mainstream guitarists (Terje Rypdal, two shows from Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith) and an inspired, illuminating focus on women in jazz, with plenty of other diversions in the avant-circus mix.
In 2010, a year shy of the milestone 40th anniversary, the festival was both flying high and treading a bit nervously, in the wake of potential budget cuts from the city, which might either cut official ties or scale the festival back to three days, from its current four-day spread. Optimism remains stubbornly in check, as jazz without Moers would seem incomplete, at this advance stage of the festival’s legacy.
Adding ambient luster to the 2010 festival was the fact that the surrounding, formerly industrial-centric Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr region) in Germany is designated as a European Capital of Culture this year. A makeover is underway in the scenically splendid Ruhr region, whose coal and steel dominance has given way in recent decades to an increasing emphasis on culture and tourism. When in the neighborhood, one well-advised side trip is to Essen and its weirdly fascinating, massive former coalmine, Zollverein, founded in 1847 and now being transformed into a combination cultural compound and museum.
On the weekend of the festival, giant yellow balloons were suspended around the area—including in Moers-as part of a Christo-like environmental art project called Schachtzeichen (“Shaft Signs”), honoring the ghosts of the area’s defunct coalmines.
Making its first appearance outside of Norway, seasoned electric guitar avatar Rypdal’s Crime Scene opened the festival, with its alternately Live/Evil-ish grooving vibe and impressionistic drifting passages. The Bergen Big Band was used sparingly and often atmospherically and trumpet soloist Palle Mikkelborg lent his less-is-more and clearly Miles-inspired voice to the proceedings. For added contextual effect, the hour-long work is peppered with hard-boiled snippets of crime cinema sound bites (i.e. DeNiro’s “you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver and Brando’s lethal mumble from Godfather).
Norway’s current high profile status in jazz continued with one of the most important shows of the festival, when Arve (Henriksen) met Bill (Frisell). Their maiden collaborative voyage was long in the planning, dating back to Henriksen’s expressed desire to work with the guitarist. As heard in a pleasingly rambling, spontaneously venturing set, they seem like kindred spirits, lyrical players with experimentalist proclivities and instantly identifiable sounds on their instruments. One strange, seemingly out-of-character moment came when Henriksen inducted the crowd into a singalong, but otherwise, the pairing felt heaven sent and destined for future doings.
As usual, Frisell-also here with his new trio with violinist Eyvind Kang and drummer-deserving-great-recognition Rudy Royston showed his uncanny penchant for mixing high, deep art and comfort food. He played an encore of “Sunny Side of Life” with the trio and, with Henriksen, an encore of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” duly Frisell-ified.
Internationalism is integral to the Moers spirit, but German musicians of note also made a strong impact this year. From the far corners of the German big band world, there came adventures of the wondrous Georg Graewe and GrubenKlangOrchestra and Matthias Schrieff Shreefpunk plus Big Band-artful, abstraction-inclusive invention and crisp/comical sounds, respectively. Sax headbanger hero Peter Brötzmann showed up twice, in all his deceptive muscularity and underlying expressive grace (yes, grace): his Chicago Tentet predictably blew the house down, beautifully and cathartically; and come Monday afternoon, Brötzmann joined Ken Vandermark and bari-blower Mats Gustafson in the group SONORE, sounding disarmingly majestic in the spacious, sacred space of the old Moers church.
Moers-bred Norwegian singer Mari Kvien Brunvoll sat in lotus position, worked elaborate looping schemes with her Bjork-esque vocals, and delivered a fascinating melding of ideas and evocative spirits. Another surprise highlight was the artfully fresh-minded German jazz-cum-pop band Schneeweiss & Rosenrot, built around the understated, sidewinding vocals of Lucia Cadotsch and the alternating freewheeling and classical-informed piano work of the wonderful young Johanna Borchert. Borchert could also be heard embracing the improvisational muse in the “morning sessions,” at one point serving up an angular, accidental “duet” with ambient church bells in the sonic periphery.
In those morning sessions, the most socio-culturally newsworthy events were the several “secret” duet set with Israeli saxist Ariel Shibolet and Palestinian trumpeter (a highly unconventional, deconstructionist trumpet at that) Mazen Korbaj. These players are not allowed to play together in theire respective homelands, and these duets were powerfully empathetic and symbolically loaded.
Dutch trumpeter Sanne van Hok, officially the artist-in-residence this year, presented a refreshingly ensemble-minded set, called “Network of Stoppages,” with cool, spacey, almost Morton Feldman-ish washes of restrained sound and gesture. Another inspired free jazz variation came with the first teaming up of sonority-coaxing bass saxophone wizard Colin Stetson, the fine saxist Matana Robert and Shahzad Ismaily on drums (he later played non-free bass and guitar in Frith’s Cosa Brava).
From a very different place, poly-style blasts of punk, free jazz, compositional formality and rock-us noise were served up by the 22-year-old members of Super Seaweed Sex Scandal, featuring the impressively free and flexible John Zorn protégé Nonoko Yoshida.
Tyshawn Sorey, surely a drummer on the scene to be reckoned with, was here in 2007 with Steve Coleman and Five Elements with hip hopsters Opus Akoben. This year, Sorey was a driving force in Steve Lehmann’s commanding Octet-the complex rhythmic math of which is influenced by Coleman and his M-BASE creed-and the drummer later turned down the ferocity to led a subtle and probing trio with German-born saxist Ingrid Laubrock and Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis. Theirs was a wowingly sensitive encounter with mostly-free but sometimes creatively structured music of the moment, and one of the most memorable sets of the fest.
Next up on that final day, Lindsay and Frith– Moers festival alumni of old–brought the long weekend to an art-rocking finale, with Brazilian and prog-folking asides. Jazz, as such, had left the building (aka tent) by then, but the diehards in the tent seemed to be, on the whole, saturated and mostly satisfied cultural customers. Another year, another challenging, art-affirming Moers festival. Let’s hope the pattern continues into the indefinite future.