Festival Report:

Moers Festival June 10 to 12, 2011
By Ken Waxman

Ornette Coleman’s performance at Germany’s Moers Festival was the surprise birthday present celebrating the 40th anniversary of Moers, which takes place annually in this town, about 50 miles from Cologne. Announced earlier, cancelled, and rescheduled, the jazz legend’s performance wasn’t even noted in the official program. Appearing on the fest’s final night, Coleman’s quartet turned in a suitably magisterial set, with the leader, dapper in a suit, infusing his tongue flutters and altissimo reed cries with genuine emotion. Segueing through short selections including classics like “Dancing in Your Head” and “Lonely Woman”, the alto saxophonist’s lines swooped, swerved and sighed, bringing a distinct country blues sensibility to everything he played.

Meanwhile bassist Tony Falanga’s robust strumming and contemplative bowing paced the material, as electric bassist Al MacDowell used guitar-like finger-picking to color the proceedings. MacDowell’s head elaborations in unison with Coleman’s lines, or flowing call-and-response patterns with Falanga, were backed by unforced backbeats from drummer Denardo Coleman.

Moers’ 20 featured performances over a three-day period took place in what is reportedly Europe’s largest circus tent. In a positive way, Moers is like a three-ring circus. Besides shows for the tent’s massive audience, the festival hosts smaller gigs elsewhere. Daily late-night sessions showcased younger Cologne improvisers and a Latin-themed dance party; mid-morning improvisations mixed and matched players from different featured bands; plus during the week, primary schoolers were taught improvisational rudiments by experienced players.

An afternoon recital at a nearby music school by 25 pupils plus instructors such as saxophonist Georg Wissel and tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch almost confirmed the anti-free music taunt that “my kid can play that” as students created well-paced, rhythmically challenging sounds. Following that experiment with protoplasmic sound extensions however, the instructors alone proved that in-the-moment improv is more sophisticated than that and demands immediate responses. One example occurred when some players picked up on one child’s repeated nose blowing, incorporating sonic parodies of her nasal honks into their solos.

Coleman’s earlier appearance at Moers was in 1981. Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, also featured that year, returned in 2011 with the Encryption trio of bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Vernon Reid, who also played with him in the Decoding Society 30 years ago. Solid in accompaniment that included cross pulsing and bass drum accents, Jackson’s playing belied the minor heart attack he suffered the day previously. He checked himself out of the hospital for the show, returning for observation immediately afterwards. Using thumping accents and slurred fingering underlined with feedback loops, Gibbs reinforced the rhythm, while utilizing buzzing reverb during solos. Instructively, much of Reid’s evocative lead guitar work was based on slide guitar styling as traditional as T-Bone Walker’s. The three were as rooted in the blues as Coleman.

If Encryption literally amplified Coleman’s innovations, then tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon plays an accelerated variant of Coleman’s imaginative improvising. Apparently never stopping for breath, Irabagon played 45-minutes of freebop studded with split-second quotes from pop and jazz standards. Encompassing techniques ranging from foghorn growls to skyscraper-high trills, he never lost his way, frequently cycled back to the head, and at points seemed to be playing two disparate reed parts by himself. Ample space was left as well for bassist Peter Brendler’s string-slaps or below-the-bridge strums plus drummer Barry Altschul’s pinpointed bass-drum bashes that fuelled a steady backbeat. Anyone missing a piano sound could have turned to a hushed and methodical solo set from Abdullah Ibrahim. Playing mostly medium tempos, Ibrahim applied variants of touch and texture to his playing, at junctures appending a slow, rocking beat to methodical chording. His pastoral output was only traded for ringing notes during an encore when torrential rain hit the tent.

Younger bands which impressed included The Ambush Party (TAP) from the Netherlands and Germany’s Tørn. Following Germany’s bombastic The Dorf, a 25-piece ensemble which combined vamping rock rhythms with sustained, climatic lines from a multiplicity of soloists, Tørn carved out a unique program of spiky chamber-improv. Although clarinettist Joris Rühl’s pitch was strident and staccato, his squeezed timbres harmonized perfectly with pianist Philip Zoubek’s tremolo runs, key clanking and string-stopping. Bassist Achim Tang’s matchless technique supplied the melding ostinato, as drummer Joe Hertenstein’s rim shots and hi-hat slaps broke up the rhythm while keeping it free-flowing.

TAP’s pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland didn’t stint on internal string strumming and stopping plus mallet-pummelling either, but these New music echoes were only part of the band’s game plan. Improvising collectively, TAP’s material galloped among references to trance, Dixieland, Klezmer, free jazz, Tango and even opera, with vocalized, bel-canto gurgles from cellist Harald Austbø, whose theatrical string-sawing on cello suggested a familiarity with the Three Stooges as much as so-called classical chamber music. Meanwhile Natalio Sued accelerating his solos, playing both flat-line clarinet tone variants and slurping tenor saxophone runs. Furthermore, drummer Marcos Baggiani’s steady beats in tandem with Austbø’s stentorian strokes plus Hoogland’s key pumping concentrated the material so that it balanced on a mesmerizing rhythmic undertow.

Other performances highlighted influences as disparate as naïve pop, R&B, grindcore, hip-hop, electronica and ethnic music. Tellingly though, the most appealing sets maintained a strong connection to jazz, as when trumpeter Igmar Thomas’ The Cypher brought the tunes on its set to a higher level with powerful soloing from saxophonist Marcus Strickland and keyboardist David Bryant; or existed in their own sphere, such as the Afrobeat-meets-soul-revue spectacle of Nigerian singer/saxophonist Seun Kuti, which incorporating multiple percussionists, horns, electric guitars plus scantily clad female backup singer/dancers.

Michiyo Yagi’s Double Trio from Japan, which matched her shrill vocals and vigorous plucks on 17-string bass koto and 21-string koto with contributions from drummers Tamaya Honda and Nori Tanaka plus bassists Todd Nicholson and Takashi Sugawa created the most appealing fusion: in this case Oriental-Occidental. Yagi’s enormous string-sets reproduced timbres that resembled 12-string guitar strums one minute and electric guitar licks a little later on. Contrapuntally her string-strokes interfaced with Nicholson’s supple, melodic plucks and Sugawa’s abrasive bow friction as easily as its distinct tone thickened the repetitive drum beats. The results were abrasive, discordant, melodic, harmonic and wholly original.

Unique performances such as Yagi’s; plus the exposure given to younger, un-hyped bands from Europe and elsewhere; as well as the appropriately hushed celebrations of masters such as Coleman; demonstrate how Moers has managed to thrive for four decades.

—For New York City Jazz Record July 2011