In the jazz world, certain words have an undeniable buzz. Mere mention of these words can register an involuntary tingle in anyone who has been affected by its associated cultural zeitgeist, pardon my German. One such power word is “Moers” (pronounced merz), which came to represent adventurous, left-of-center musical values in the ’70s. In fact, Moers is a tiny and lovely town in the industrial Ruhr Valley area of Germany, close to Dusseldorf. The town-and the word-would otherwise be invisible on the global jazz map had not Burkard Hennen started the Moers Jazz Festival back in 1972.
A little festival that could, Moers brought important American and European artists on the edge into a literal bigtop (reportedly the largest circus tent in Europe). With the help of the now-defunct Moers Music label, the Moers “brand” helped to focus deserved attention on jazz “fringe” dwellers, even teaching American avant-jazz fans a thing or three. And it couldn’t have happened in a more picturesque spot.
Over the years, the event has receded into the forest of European jazz festivals, losing the original gleam and intensity. At Moers, though, the big news these days is that the old spirit has been revived, thanks largely to a change of the guard. Artistic director Reiner Michalke took over the reins, determined to revive the festival’s reputation as a chance-taking operation. In this May’s edition, the badge of honor was the long-awaited return of the great Anthony Braxton to the festival, his first visit in 30 years.
It’s official: Moers is reborn.
First-timers to the festival, like this scribe, have sequential surprises in store. Walking from the Hotel van der Valk through the vast, lush park between the hotel and downtown hamlet, you first notice a smattering of tents and partying Teutonic Bedouins, growing ever denser. It expands into a village replete with food and hippie-time vendors, drum circles, buskers and hanger-outers, scruffy and otherwise. In this ephemeral camp, you can get pierced here, snarf a bratwurst, and puff a hookah, plus listen to a one-man band playing Frank Zappa’s naughty and musical complex ditty “Dinah Moe Hum” by an idyllic pond.
Welcome to the organically-grown Zeltstadt, a phenom that started up in the ’70s and has now become an annual local tradition, a massive barnacle on the body of the jazz festival proper. Most of those camping here have nothing to do with the jazz festival bigtop itself, at the far end of the encampment, although the festival tries to lure them in with an onsite radio station and podcasts and other modern forms of outreach. Whereas the jazz festival brings in about 11,000 visitors, the outer festival swells up to more than 20,000 people, creating a friendly tale of two festivals.
But for jazz nerds, the musical circus is the reason for being here. Besides Braxton’s thrilling sextet, other main events in the bigtop included Steve Coleman, Mike Patton, and hip “out” acts like Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen, the visual-sonic splendor of the Japanese group Cornelius, and the arty-party band Steve Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. For this listener’s money, the surprise “discovery” of the program dropped down from Finland (which shouldn’t be surprising given that Scandinavia, especially Norway, is a current hot spot of jazz invention and inspiration). Mikko Innanen & Inkvisitio is a young, funny, intuitively creative and instrumentally masterful band, onto something new. Wily keyboardist Seppo Kantonen, one of the festival’s most valuable and also unhinged players, doled out surprises by the fistful.
In the fresh musical context of the festival, post-fusion keyboardist dynamo Hiromi’s closing seemed a bit drab and old-fashioned.
Over the ritual breakfast-er, fruhstuck-in the Hotel one morning, noted German pianist George Graewe was talking about his own relationship with the festival, extending back before his own musical life began. “I used to come here in the ’70s,” he says, “when I was 14, to see the acts. It was one of the major festivals in Europe.”
That night, Graewe-who hadn’t played here since 1995-performed one of the finest shows of the festival, without a lick of music paper. His improvisation power-trio GRH, with famed improvisers Ernst Reijseger on cello and Gerry Hemingway on drums, was amended by the instinctively poetic and blind saxist/keyboardist Earl Howard. They showed the unique and “site-and-time-specific” expressive power of free improvisation, when done well (which it rarely is).
More improvisational firepower bubbled up in the morning sessions scattered around the town of Moers, with improvisers brought over from Beijing, nearby Frankfurt, and Norway. Improvisation, a cause and a quasi-religion which has pockets of activity all over the world, is one of the truly universal languages in music, requiring only open ears, sensitivity to the moment and quick responses-oh, and instrumental acuity-to lure the muse into a given room. The muse was working overtime at Moers this year, and many of the morning sessions soared, on-the-spot.
No visit to Moers is complete without a stop at the Moers Schloss, the local castle (the equivalent of the Santa Barbara Mission, but add 600 years, and in the heart of “old Europe” instead of a New World backwater). Here, you can feel the hum of history and of ghosts underfoot, in a structure dating back to the 12th century, with various points of reconstruction and German history lessons through the centuries. The latest construction phase is going determinedly backwards, recreating and archeologically exploring the oldest section.
In the top floor of the castle is a museum, currently housing a fascinating exhibition on the theme of the classic German song “Lili Marlene.” Going through the show, one could hear multiple recordings of the song’s haunting refrains: yes, we associate it with Marlene Dietrich’s sultry-salty 1943 recording, but Lale Anderson’s 1939 hit version came first. A poster from Fassbinder’s great film of the same name and artifacts of military and period significance lend color and veracity to the show.
Lingering memories of Hitler-ian horrors still prevail in Germany and in Europe generally, like as-yet healed psychological wounds. But when we recognize that the song “Lili Marlene” was beloved as an anthem of the heart by both German and Allied soldiers, we get the picture of music’s unparalleled power to bridge other human follies.
That same impression was also made in the Neues Rathaus (“new city hall”), a short walk away from the ancient castle, on a Saturday morning improvisation session. Drummer Hemingway engaged in fascinating non-linguistic “conversations” with Wu Wei on the Chinese reed instrument called the sheng, Norwegian Lars Myrvoll tweaking a laptop, and the amazing Berliner trumpeter Axel Dorner, one of the subtlest horn players you’re likely to find anywhere.
All was right with the world, for a half hour or so, here in a quiet, woodsy town in the Ruhr Valley.