John Zorn
John Zorn

Moers Festival, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

For a good part of its 42-year history, the main action of the Moers Music Festival has taken place in a sturdy, dark blue, 2,000-seat circus tent, pitched in the middle of the local park. As I made my way there through a sprawl of food stalls and subsidiary tents, its whereabouts was brought sharply to my attention when a spine-chilling scream and muffled scrub of white-noise guitar punched through the damp evening air. A six-project John Zorn marathon was the night’s main event, and the blood-curdling cry was the American composer and saxophonist’s first roll of the dice.

The spine-chilling screech, it transpired when I took my place inside, was vocalist Mike Patton’s, and it came with speedy backbeats and Marc Ribot’s cranked-up guitar. There was barely a minute of this before Sofia Rei’s vocals began floating mournfully over acoustic-driven bolero – Ribot again, acoustic and mild – and then there was whimsical indie-pop, sung by Jesse Harris. This was just the start of the 10-piece “Song Project”’, the evening’s first set. Avant-jazz piano followed, then a string quartet, dazzling a cappella vocals and ambient rock. To cap it all, there was a ramped-up finale from Zorn’s best-known band, Electric Masada.

Zorn’s works range from the through-composed to the improvised, via all points in between. The short songs of the pop-orientated “Song Project” leaned towards the sweet and were occasionally fluffy, but the lyrics told another tale. Even the multi-noted rattle and thump free-jazz trio had a twist in its tail when Zorn pointed to the pianist and said “every note Mr Gosling played was written”. Only bass and drums had been free to wander.

Each ensemble took virtuosity to the limit, cross-breeding genres and shooting off at tangents. The through-composed string quartet whizzed through venomous attacks and dulcet plunks; the swing-inflected lines sounded like a score from Ornette Coleman. “Dreamers” made soft rock malevolent with compound time and Jamie Saft’s gospel-jazz Rhodes. Here, Zorn conducted from within, counting, pointing, and conjuring textural twists with the flick of a wrist.

There was much going on and much to admire. Two sets did stand out, though. “Holy Visions’, featuring a five-woman a cappella chorale, was conceived as a mystery play celebrating the 12th-century visionary Hildegard of Bingen. Sung in Latin, it started with the crystalline purity of a Bulgarian choir, and took in chants and ring shouts, high-mass splendour and dark whispers, before ending on a mid-range “Aaaah!” And Electric Masada’s mix of free jazz, funk and Middle Eastern dance was truly climactic. Zorn played alto sax on this, directing his two-drum band through slam-bang stops, trades and wicked changes of pace, sometimes while circular breathing full-force phonics at an ear-splitting volume. But there were quiet bits and vamps, and squeak-and-squawk sax over an unerring final riff. It took an age to coax him back, for a light touch groove to signal that it was over.

Saturday’s main programme started mid-afternoon with a set that almost matched Zorn’s for enthusiasm and range. Local jazz orchestra The Dorf have a dozen brass and two of almost everything else, including strings, drums and electronic sound-shapers. They opened with a tight-as-tight “Overture” – it sounded exactly like that – and proceeded to cut and paste fusion with thrash, and swirly drones with free jazz and world music references. Disciplined and with energy to spare, The Dorf deserve wider renown.

The festival presented seven 45-minute sets each day and each act was worth a look. The impressive Dorf were followed by Swedish acoustic jazz, an ear-shattering piano power trio – with Bill Laswell on bass – and a set from Brazilian singer Lenine, whose warm-hearted guitar riffs were fleshed out by the strings and reeds of the Martin Fondse Orchestra. To end, there was the Proverb Trio, led by Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto and featuring vocalist Kokayi freestyling over edgy dancehall beats.

The highlight, though, was the through-improvising Norwegian duo of vocalist Sidsel Endresen and guitarist Stian Westerhus, who conjured solitude and rage with an energy and focus that matched Zorn’s. Endresen, calmly seated, muttered, growled and yodelled, stringing together a tirade of nonsense-syllabled rhyme in beautiful, folk-rooted tones. Westerhaus, pedal and laptop at the ready, bounded and bent to transmute basic strums and masked riffs into haunting whines, violent beeps and industrial grinds – at one point he stabbed his amp with his guitar for extra distortion. They started bleakly, sounds hovering in isolation, grew to a frenzy of fractured beats, before subsiding to a malevolent hiss.

Evelyn Glennie
Evelyn Glennie

Sunday evening opened with white-knuckle trio Nohome, featuring Caspar Brotzman’s sound-shredding guitar, and continued with an intimate and sensitive duet. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie and guitarist Fred Frith created a tapestry of textures, including, at one stage, the simulated sound of marching feet.

In the penultimate spot, Church mixed acoustic jazz with hardcore urban beats created by their dominant force, keyboardist Mark De Clive-Lowe. They took time to settle, but clicked when saxophonist Jaleel Shaw stretched out over body-shaking hip-hop beats.

The finale was drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s tightly-constructed Mosaic project. The core jazz virtues of solo strength and tight section work were applied to surging swing and modern funk while giving Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” a drum and bass pulse. Geri Allen on piano and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen shone, but the highlight of the evening came mid-set, when deep-toned vocalist Lizz Wright gracefully interpreted Nick Drake’s “Three Hours” as a delta blues, with only Carrington’s mallets and Matt Stephens’ guitar for support.

In what seemed like no time at all, the midnight curfew struck. It was a last call for both this year’s festival and its Big Blue Tent. Moers Music Festival moves indoors next year, but with programming this good, the transition should be smooth, and nostalgia the only reason to fret.

John Zorn appears at the Barbican, London, on July 12

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