Moers Festival 2023

The hippyish character of the venerable German festival prevails; little was passé about the thoroughly modern music, however

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Moers festival, 2023. Clockwise from top left: Billy Hart (photo Kurt Rade); Marilyn Mazur (Lars Schmidt); Burch, Camatta, Kraabel and Mehner (Nils Brinkmeier); Music From Kylwiria (Kurt Rade)

The Moers Festival began in 1972, and retains its green, hippyish legacy. It’s located outside the town of the same name, on the German side of the border with the Netherlands. Events are spread between the Berg – an open space overlooked by a small hill – the Halle, a large sports hall, and the Annex, a small quadrangle in the music school. The festival runs over four event-packed days, which I caught from day two.

At the Berg on Saturday, the highlight was Burch, Camatta, Kraabel and Mehner – that’s the UK’s Bex Burch (gyil, vocals) and Caroline Kraabel (saxophones, vocals) along with Simon Camatta (percussion) and Raissa Mehner (guitar) from Germany. The quartet played a melodic kind of free jazz/free improv, whose most notable timbres came from Burch on gyil, a kind of marimba played by the Lobi, Dagati and Sissala peoples of Ghana. Beneath each of the instrument’s 14 wooden keys hangs a gourd, acting as resonator; each gourd has holes covered with a membrane that spiders make to protect their eggs, that buzzes when the key is struck. Following this quartet was Marilyn Mazur’s percussion-heavy band – less successful, I felt, with unattractive sounds from synth and electric keyboards.

In the Halle was one of several tributes to the music of modernist composer György Ligeti by improvising musicians – this is the centenary of the composer’s birth, and his son, electronic composer Lukas Ligeti, was featured elsewhere in the festival. Music From Kylwiria offered a novel, rewarding exploration of Ligeti senior’s “clocks” and “clouds” genres, along on occasion with environmental sounds including water and wind. Among those participating was the excellent Nate Wooley on trumpet.

On the way back, the sounds of a quartet featuring vibists David Friedman and Jim Hart drifted across from the Berg. Ironically, the “at the same time” event of Cooper-Moore/Kaie Kellough and Karina Kozhevnikov/Elvin Brandhi, where the two duos performed simultaneously at different venues, was cancelled due to technical problems – an unwitting tribute to Ron De Santis’s abortive presidential launch on Twitter Spaces, perhaps. Why one would want to attempt this trick, I’m not sure.

Among the entertaining and informative artist talks was one at the Annex featuring Gavin Bryars and Caroline Kraabel. In his lively contribution, Bryars explained how after his early improv career he developed an aversion to the genre. When he resumed it in the 90s, he re-formed his trio with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. He explained that the other musicians had to adjust to his melodic as opposed to textural approach to free improv, while he himself was picking up a long-buried skill. They were all adjusting, therefore, “which is how it should be”, he added – a nice thought.

Billy Hart’s set was state of the postbop art

On Sunday, the performance in the Halle by the Billy Hart Quartet was the highlight of the festival for me. The band featured Dayna Stephens (tenor saxophone), Ethan Iverson (piano) and Ben Street (bass). Hart explained that the first piece – which he didn’t name – was in honour of president Kennedy’s pardon of Hampton Hawes. It featured a bluesy solo by Iverson that showed his mastery of the idiom. Second came Hart’s lyrical tone-poem Song For Balkis, in which Stephens’s rich, beefy tenor tone was showcased at a slow ad lib tempo. Balkis, Hart explained, was the Queen of Sheba, married to Solomon. The third piece was dedicated to “all grandmothers in the audience” and here Iverson’s solo was fragmented, punctuated by him standing up. Teule’s Redemption, by Hart, showed that the 82-year-old drummer had lost none of his force, its ecstatic Coltrane-ish free jazz transitioning to a bright mid-tempo groove. The plangent Ohnedaruth, by Iverson, was named after Alice Coltrane’s mystical name for her husband. The set concluded with drum solos by Hart including a tribute to Max Roach’s The Drum Also Waltzes. This set was state of the postbop art.

At the Berg, Keune/Ewen/Smith reminded me that it’s wrong to focus on European free improv at the expense of American. The genre has many adherents there, and American bassist Damon Smith is fully adept at both free jazz and free improv. This trio focused on the latter, with the bespectacled, rather professorial-looking Stefan Keune on alto and straight soprano saxophones – or was that sopranino? The former had a distinctive rubbery tone. Sandy Ewen was on laptop electric guitar. This was the most free improv-inclined event I saw at the festival, and intensely rewarding too.

Garrett’s essentially pop treatment of Coltrane-based jazz became clear. He rapped as well as played the saxophone, to tedious effect

The final day’s highlight should have been Kenny Garrett And Sounds From The Ancestors, at the Halle. The band featured the leader on alto and tenor saxophones, David Brown (piano), Corcoran Holt (bass), Rudy Bird (percussion) and Ronald Bruner (drums). The hall was packed and I began by sitting near the front on the left – an unbalanced position where the sound was like mud. After moving to the back of the steeply raked seating, where the volume was incredibly loud even from that distance, Garrett’s essentially pop treatment of Coltrane-based jazz became clear. He rapped as well as played the saxophone, to tedious effect. The audience loved it – it takes all sorts to make a jazz audience. 

Much more compelling music could he heard at the Berg, including an enterprising solo gig by Italian percussionist Valentina Magaletti on drums and tuned percussion with vibraharp. Most striking was Kruglov, Kozhevnikova and Talalai, a remarkable trio from Archangel, Russia – Alexey Kruglov (saxophones), Karina Kozhevnikova (piano, vocals) and Petr Talalai (drums). They play a kind of fiercely expressionist but lyrical Russian free jazz, with the saxophonist switching from alto to tenor and sometimes playing both, and also recorder(s). The pianist doubles on vocals. They played a remarkable jazz version of Ligeti’s Etude no. 4. After I left for the Kenny Garrett gig at the Halle, I heard their distant version of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman from across the fields. Given the bans on performances by Russian artists, I’m unsure of the politics here, but surely such freedom-loving musicians couldn’t be Putin supporters.