Moers Festival 2014 New Hall, New Opportunities

Marcus Schmickler and Jaki Liebezeit at the Moers Festival 2014.
Marcus Schmickler and Jaki Liebezeit at the Moers Festival 2014. | Photo (detail): Moers Festival / Elisa Essex

In some German cities large construction sites lie idle. Stuttgart, Hamburg or Berlin have shown us how not to do it, if you want build for example a new airport or a concert hall; the small town of Moers, near the Dutch border, has provided a better example and offered the well known jazz festival a new concert venue.

For decades, the adventuresome Moers Festival lured thousands of jazz fans into an attractive but very weather-dependent circus tent. The general scepticism was great when it became known that the spectacle was to be moved to a permanent but sober hall in 2014. The idea originated a few years ago when, during a rehearsal in the said hall, which was then in a pitiful state, the American pianist and bandleader Carla Bley assumed she was at the festival venue and wondered where the audience was. From October 2013 to immediately before admission to the first concert of the 2014 Moers Festival, the dilapidated tennis hall was converted into one of the most beautiful festival halls in Germany, with a capacity of approximately 2,000 listeners. The audience benefited from this as much as the organizers and the music itself. The acoustics is brilliant, there is much less discomfort and fluctuation in the hall than in the tent, and things can be performed in the former that were simply impossible in the latter.

Yet even the best venue would be no good without the corresponding programme. The new creative freedom made possible by the renovated hall seems to have inspired festival director Reiner Michalke to invite even more multi-faceted, nuanced and challenging groups than before. Of course he is under the obligation to continue the existing experimental spirit that has over the years made the Moers Festival one of the most important landmarks of each season. And he has stuck to his guns by continuing to pursue his concept of a combination of existing scene greats and projects of his own design. Young acts from the American East and West Coasts celebrate here huge class reunions, groups from France and Germany hold high the measuring stick for European jazz, and a legend has returned to Moers. Only the Norwegians, hitherto always well-represented at the festival, have faltered a bit. Several artists and bands have shown how close tradition and avant-garde often are.

Renowned avant-garde

With the performance of his ground-breaking 1980 album Gravity, avant-garde legend Fred Frith bridged the span from the beginnings of postmodernism in jazz to the present. The original record, which was performed by several bands, was for its part the link between British progrock and the then just forming New York downtown avant-garde around John Zorn. For Frith, however, it was not about the recapitulation of achievements but an update. With an eleven member band around the California clarinettist Aaron Novik, Frith transferred his classic authentically to 2014. This compression opened a gap between itself and the now 34 year-old release of the record that made the audience realise, sometimes painfully, the change in its listening habits.

The New York quartet Ideal Bread around the trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist Josh Sinton made heard the compositions of the free jazz pioneer Steve Lacy. The often extravagant originals were reduced by the band to handy three-minute formats, and instead of Lacy’s soprano saxophone, Sinton played exclusively a baritone instrument. With soloist discipline and chamber music-like understatement, Ideal Bread nevertheless achieved the intensity of an alternative rock band. Good old friends of the festival are Mostly Other People Do the Killing. For their programme, Red Hot, the avant-gardists, who work in the best lounge lizard tradition, not only bulked up their four-member band to a septet but also trimmed their concept along the lines of ragtime and New Orleans. The bravado of saxophonist Jon Irabagon has long got about in Moers, but the madness of banjo player Brandon Seabrook opened completely new horizons for string instruments.

The same cannot be said of guitar hero Marc Ribot. He appeared under the rubric of Protest Songs. Sitting on a chair, he lost himself in a stack of text pages, often sang off key and had to iron out his slips with the guitar. Happily, his lounge lizard predecessor Arto Lindsay, in duo with the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, reached back and delivered a brutally powerful samba set.

German-international accents

Of the participating German artists, especially to be mentioned is pianist Julia Hülsman, who as Improviser In Residence in 2014 had ample time to prepare her programme with singer Theo Bleckmann, saxophonist Hayden Chisholm and drummer Moritz Baumgartner. Her navigation between instrumental and vocal music, electronic alienations and acoustic improvisations was always tight and highly motivated. A new highlight in the endlessly creative ridge walks of the Berliner artist.

The French Trio Jean Louis delivered in addition a power set in which the electronically alienated trumpet often assumed the function of a powerful electric guitar. These unusual sounds were as disconcerting as they were stimulating. Finally, a furious splash of colour was hurled by Sun Ra Arkestra, which commemorated the centenary of the birth of its founder. Led by the 90 year-old Marshall Allen, almost nothing in the band worked, and yet it was a grand masquerade.

With this mixture of retrospective and perspective, the Moers Festival managed an astonishing reload. And more: it dispelled fears that with the new hall the old spirit of experimentation would be lost. 2014 sounded more like embarkation than truncation.