After the Circus, Rehousing a Legacy at Moers Festival
Lines of musical, historical and geographical convergence suddenly achieved a strange moment of clarity on an unseasonably sweltering afternoon at the Moers Festival, which ran from June 6–9 in its namesake German city. The band Ideal Bread took the stage in the brand-new, indoor festival hall, which this year replaced the beloved “big top” circus tent.
Ideal Bread, led by baritone sax specialist Josh Sinton, is a fascinating, chord-less band from Brooklyn, dedicated to playing new arrangements of music by the late, great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, an American expatriate who more or less found himself—and a nurturing audience—in Europe.
Early on during the excellent set, Sinton sent a sincere and grateful shout-out to the hosting festival, which he became aware of as a young, inspiration-seeking record buyer, discovering live recordings by avant-garde greats on the Moers Records label. He said he came to view Moers as a kind of mysterious and mythical idea as much as an actual place, a case of a European jazz entity embracing left-ish jazz from America and elsewhere—and sometimes teaching Americans about what’s happening in the non-mainstream avenues of American jazz.
The Moers Festival, humbly founded in 1972 by bassist Peter Kowald and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and taken into its legendary early period by long-running director Burkhard Hennen, has come to represent jazz’s edge, one of the seminal festivals with a left-field leaning and crusading zeal.
“They say Brooklyn is a cool place,” Stinton told the packed crowd, tongue only half in cheek, “but right now, Moers is the coolest fucking place in the world.”
In the past several years, the festival’s legacy at Moers, in the beautiful North-Rhine Westfalia region of Germany, has been renewed and rejuvenated by director Reiner Michalke, who put together a wondrously balanced program for this 43rd annual fest, a year which will be marked by its new venue home.
After years spent in the transitory quarters of Europe’s largest circus tent, forces and funding were marshaled to create a new hall just in time for this year’s fest. Built inside the shell of a vast tennis hall, the venue is a jewel, blessed with crisp sound, warm ambience and democratic sightlines, and marked by legends’ quotes on the support pillars (Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”; Wes Montgomery’s comment, “I never practice my guitar. From time to time, I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat”; and Lou Reed’s observation that “if it has more than three chords, it’s jazz.”)
Fittingly, the fest opened with an ear- and eye-opening set by German bassist Sebastian Gramss’ BassMasse, for no less than 40 bassists, led in “conduction” style by Rodrigo López Klingenfuss and featuring Mark Dresser as one of the lead bassists. It was an awesome sonic encounter, yet also subtle, paying tribute to the late festival-founding bassist Kowald—whose very bass is owned and played by Gramss.
Bigger was often better at this year’s roster. On the next day, formidable and flexible Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love led the charge with his powerful collection of fine young Norwegian players called the “Large Unit,” clearly one of the memorable highlights of the weekend. If the drummer restrained his own force-of-nature playing for the good of the whole ensemble, he cut loose more cathartically in an odd-coupling duet with wirily charismatic guitarist-singer Arto Lindsay the next day.
Other compelling duo encounters this year included the madcap musicality of Dutch drummer Han Bennink (also present at the very first Moers festival) and young keyboardist Oscar Jan Hoogland, and the inspired matchup of jazz drummer Joey Baron and new-music percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky.
Each of the four festival evenings capped off with a festive, party-themed closing act.
The Saturday night finale by the Sun Ra Arkesta, on tour to celebrate what would have been Sun Ra’s 100th birthday, was disappointingly earthbound. Apart from 90-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen’s wily, wild playing and the last song’s “space is the place” mantra, the band failed to achieve its departed leader’s level of electricity and eccentricity.
By contrast, Letieres Leite & Orkestra Rumpilezz cooked up a riveting set distinguished by Afro-Brazilian features. The Brazilian group has earned a spot on the jazz fest circuit’s must-see list.
The best closing act came on the final day of the festival with Mostly Other People Do The Killing, in its early jazz-channeling Red Hot incarnation. The Moers Festival was an important early gateway for the American band to develop a devoted fan base in Europe. Its joyfully chaotic playing merged with jubilant, sassy melodies, highlighting lines of musical, historical and Euro-American jazz convergence in the post-circus tent hall.