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
July 7, 2011
MICHIYO YAGI & PAULOWINA CRUSH
BAJ Records BJCD-0018
Japans musical infrastructure is so vast, and the distances between that country, North America and Europe so extensive that we often possess an incomplete idea of its musicians and their talents.
Itemizing the Western experiences of kotoist Michiyo Yagi, who leads the ensemble on this CD, for instance, youd thinks she was an out-and-out experimentalist. Spending a year as a visiting professor at Connecticuts Wesleyan University in 1989-1990 confirmed an interest in adapting her instrument for modern composition. Since that time she has released a solo disc on John Zorns Tzadik label and performed with such certified American genre-benders as alto saxophonist Zorn, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and vocalist Lauren Newton. She is also one-third of the electro-improv band Hoahio with vocalist/thereminist/percussionist Haco and sampler/computer artist Sachiko M.
On his side, Masahiko Satoh, whose compositions and arrangements are performed here by Yagis seven member Paulowina Crush koto ensemble, won a jazz award from Japans Swing Journal magazine as long ago as 1969, after studies at Bostons Berklee School of Music. Sine that time he has turned his attention to creating scores and arrangements for TV, film and record productions and even runs the BAJ label. Yagi too makes frequent appearances on Japanese TV, while the notes for this session boast of Crushs computer-like precision
to synchronize with music of any genre.
Rather than sounding like music by Zorn or John Cage, to take two experimental exemplars, in fact, YURAL utilizes this combo of traditional 13-string and more unusual 17- and 20-string kotos for something that was probably more palatable for domestic consumption. To Western ears, the endproduct sounds like what would happen if Henry Mancini or Bob James wrote contemporary string band music.
Hajo-gin is the single time any type of dissonance creeps into the presentation -- if, of course, it isnt the expected atonality of Oriental sounds to Westerners. Although the tune begins with references to Japanese ceremonial court music, the performers actually seem to be playing off one anothers intricate riffs. Slowing down and speeding up again the serpentine melody elaborates sounds that resemble those Old-Timey music mandolin runs and ascending pizzicato harp glissandos. With suggestions of a low-down bass rumble that probably comes from Yagis 17-string instrument, it ends with the steady percussive rhythm of massed tugged metal strings.
Elsewhere the tracks range from sounding like how you imagine those formal, 58-piece mandolin orchestras of the 1920s would have, to a mixture that would result if an early string band group record was extended with primitive electronics. A couple are so slow moving, in truth, that somnolent baroque recitals come to mind. But the rest are pleasant enough, with the steady syncopated repetition from the consolidated strings hinting at everything from speedy Bluegrass mandolin picking, middle-European ballad tremolos, half-remembered folk ballads and plucked Appalachian hammered dulcimers. Theres no hint of the extended techniques and unconventional scales and tunings promised in the notes -- at least, again, not to Occidental sensibilities.
Now obviously one shouldnt expect outstanding, unforgettable creations just because a disc features so-called exotic instruments and sophisticated musicians from another culture. But surely with the massed talent here, more than acceptable near-background fare could have resulted.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Nahm 2. Ta-gin 3. Iberian Sunset 4. Hajo-gin 5.Ka-gai 6. A Plowing Song of Kyeshong 7. Tan Tejah
Personnel: Michiyo Yagi (koto [1, 6], 17-string koto [4, 7], 20-string koto [2-3, 5]); Hiroko Takahashi (koto [2, 6], 17-string koto [1, 4-5]); Hiromi Inoue (koto [2, 4-5]; Yasuyo Takeuchi (koto [4-5], 17-string koto [1-2]; Madoka Nakano (koto [2, 4-5], 17-string koto ); Ikumi Seki (koto [1, 4], 17-string koto [2, 5]; Yuka Sumino (17-string koto [2, 5])
February 8, 2002