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Big Ears Festival 2017

Mark Sullivan By

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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 23-26, 2017

Knoxville's Big Ears Festival expanded to a full four days this year, giving it more time to go its expected merry, eclectic way. In a break with usual practice, there was no official Composer in Residence. That distinction could have gone to Gavin Bryars (with four concerts of his music)—or possibly Carla Bley (two concerts), Meredith Monk (two performances), or Henry Threadgill (who won the Pulitzer Prize for music last year). By booking coincidence, it was also a sort of mini-ECM Records showcase.

ECM artists included the aforementioned Gavin Bryers, Carla Bley, and Meredith Monk; also singer Theo Bleckmann, guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, Hardanger fiddler/violinist Nils Okland (in his first visit to the U.S.), accordionist Frode Haltli, organist Sigbjorn Apeland, and bassist/composer Mats Eilertsen. It wasn't entirely coincidental, because there was also a partnership with Music Norway, the Norwegian Jazzforum, the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival and the Norwegian Consulate General in New York to highlight Norwegian artists, which have long been well-represented on the ECM roster. While the festival has always had an international component, this year's Norwegian Invasion was especially pronounced.

Carla Bley & the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

The major event on opening day had to be Carla Bley and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, which drew on Bley's longtime big band repertoire. "On The Stage In Cages" came out swinging, and featured a dramatic trombone solo accompanied only by a brass choir. "Setting Calvin's Waltz" included a quote from the Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me." When Bley introduced the band ("pretty good, huh?" was her wry comment on the Orchestra) she pointed out the other members of her trio who were sitting in: Andy Sheppard on tenor sax and bassist Steve Swallow (as well as Bley herself on piano, when she wasn't busy directing). They closed the set with her five-part composition "The National Anthem" ("what better time?" she asked after announcing it). It's a sprawling piece, full of quotes from "America The Beautiful," military and football marches, and more. The enthusiastic audience wouldn't let her go, so they played "Who Will Rescue You?" as an encore.

Drummer Bobby Kapp and pianist Matthew Shipp played free improvisation in the intimate Square Room. Their recent album Cactus (Northern Spy Records, 2016) presented their improvisations as a collection of nine tracks, but their festival performance was a single, uninterrupted set. Kapp came on stage wearing an eye- catching aqua colored sequined jacket, but his playing was not comparably flamboyant. He and Shipp were a well oiled team, from the abstract opening (Kapp playing only cymbals) to sections with a swing feel (Shipp played a Thelonious Monk quote at one point, proof that he's not all about continuous chromatic flurries of notes). The flow moved on to a section of Shipp playing inside the piano, then finally gentle music with Kapp using brushes.

Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts)

Composer Robert Ashley's "opera for television" has seven parts, and runs for three hours. It's hard to imagine performers other than the originals, especially Ashley's droll narration and "Blue" Gene Tyranny's synthesizers and piano. So Matmos (the duo of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) opted for rearrangement rather than replication. They presented three of the seven parts, each with its own staging and instrumentation. Part I (The Park) utilized live strings providing a drone, live flute obbligato, Schmidt's narration plus two female narrators as a chorus, with Daniel providing electronic percussion and occasional electronic voice processing. Part IV (The Bar) found Schmidt dressed for a night out (as was the chorus), with cheesy rock music playing and live cocktail piano. Part VII (The Backyard) had Schmidt alone, sometimes accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or keyboard—with the ubiquitous laptop background of percussion and synthesizer, of course. It was a completely arresting performance, successful in every way: musically, as stage performance, and a fresh interpretation of a seminal avant-garde performance piece.

Wu Fei was a pleasant surprise for me. She is a contemporary master of the guzheng, a 2,000 year old Chinese 21-string instrument in the zither family, similar to the Japanese koto. She played and sang a lot of traditional music, which was simply gorgeous. Clearly there are contemporary touches as well. Early on she explained that her instruments can be tuned much faster than traditional ones, due to the addition of tuning pegs like a piano. "Fisherman's Song" included some piquant dissonances that did not strike me as traditional; ditto the parallel harmonies she employed on a later tune, which also included a rhythmic pounding technique in addition to plucking the strings in the usual way. She was able to play tremolando chords with one hand while playing melodies with the other: there seems to be nothing she cannot make this ancient instrument do. During the performance she moved between two guzhengs, sometimes playing them both simultaneously. The audience was so enchanted they insisted upon an encore, which she satisfied with a song of her own, about her memory of a winter lake while growing up in Beijing.

Nils Økland Band

Norwegian Hardanger fiddle/violinist Nils Okland made his first visit to the U.S. for the festival, bringing the band that recorded the acclaimed album Kjølvatn (ECM, 2016) to the St. John's Cathedral—the album was recorded in a church, making this an especially appropriate venue. The concert opened with "Kjølvatn," Økland's Hardanger fiddle in duet with double bassist Mats Eilertsen. From there I believe they went straight into "Fivreld," with its fast theme doubled by saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nylstrøm. Nylstrøm has an especially remarkable altissimo register, which he employed during solos as well as his unaccompanied introduction to one tune. "Undergrunn" again reminded me of the Scottish/ American folk song "Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love's Hair)," as it had when I first heard the recording. Near the end of the set Nylstrøm made an emotional announcement thanking the audience for being so generous ("hearing music you don't know, by musicians you don't know, in a language you don't know") and celebrating the fact that the performance was entirely acoustic, which is indeed a rare gift these days. The final tune came from the Shetland Islands: Økland dedicated it to refugees, and organist Sigbjorn Apeland moved from the harmonium to the church's pipe organ. A wonderful performance, and a festival highlight for me.

Økland and band members played two additional concerts later in the festival. The first was a duet performance with keyboardist Sigbjorn Apeland in another church, the larger Church Street United Methodist Church (despite its less grand name, a bigger space than St. John's Cathedral). This was another completely acoustic performance, beginning with music associated with Ole Bull, the iconic Romantic era Norwegian violinist/composer who the pair had celebrated on the album Lysøen: Hommage à Ole Bull (ECM, 2011). After a half hour of Ole Bull music with harmonium, Apeland moved to the church's pipe organ for improvisations on a mix of Norwegian folk tunes and melodies composed by Økland. The violinist even sang a bit while fiddling, leading into a big organ climax. The duo concluded with a "Travel Tune" on violin and harmonium.

Økland and bassist Mats Eilertsen played a duet set at The Standard, a much more intimate venue. It was a playful set: mainly traditional music, but with an open approach. They began both playing arco, and went into a new, experimental area briefly as the tune dissolved into string noise. During their improvisation on an American tune Eilertsen prepared his upright bass with a drumstick, and played a variety of scraping and percussive sounds, culminating in a high, koto-like solo. Full of surprises, he then detuned the low string on his bass to produce a low, rumbling solo. Økland introduced a set of tunes from Norway, Scotland (fiddler Aly Bain) and Canada that had a tuning in common with the Hardanger fiddle. The pair concluded with an original tune named "Amstel" inspired by an Amsterdam visit.

Ståle Storløkken & Arve Henriksen

Keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and trumpeter Arve Henriksen have been playing together in the ambient jazz group Supersilent (which performed later in the festival) for over 20 years. There were electronic keyboards set up in the stage area, but Storløkken went straight to the church's pipe organ to begin the show. Henriksen began playing in the back of the church and processed up the main aisle to the front. The pair must have loved the sound of that organ, because they played the first 40 minutes of the concert as one continuous piece. Henriksen responded to the organ in various ways. He switched to his lovely falsetto singing voice briefly, then played trumpet through a laptop computer sampler (he and the organ traded sound effects for awhile), finally switching to the smaller piccolo trumpet. When Storløkken joined the trumpeter on stage he initially employed a percussive keyboard sound, a marked contrast with the legato organ. Then the pair generated a dense electronic atmosphere (the sort of sound more associated with Supersilent), a vocal-sounding synthesizer patch trading with the trumpet. For the final selection it was back to the pipe organ, but this time Henriksen began on bamboo flute, then voice (a song with lyrics, likely a Norwegian traditional song), finally switching to trumpet. It sounded like Storløkken literally "pulled out all the stops" for the huge climax.

Carla Bley Trio

Carla Bley brought her trio with longtime playing partners bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard to the Bijou Theater stage. There were surprises, beginning with "Copycat," a tune receiving only the second public performance ever (Swallow joked that it went so well the first time, they thought they would try it again). Bley introduced "Naked Bridges/Diving Brides" mentioning her debt to composer Felix Mendelssohn—but given the laughter at her humorous reharmonization of the famous "Wedding March," it was probably unnecessary. Next came a World Premier called "Beautiful Jennifer" which Bley described as being dedicated to (or about) Donald Trump. She got another big laugh with her quote from "My Way." The trio closed with the title suite from the trio's recent album Andando el Tiempo (ECM, 2016). Music about addiction and recovery, which Bley helpfully translated as "The Passage of Time." Bley's considerable reputation as a composer tends to overshadow her piano playing, but at one time she was more or less the house pianist for many Jazz Composer's Orchestra projects. It's a pleasure to hear her in this context, and I cannot recall a group that exudes more joy in playing together. A fine climax to Friday's festivities.

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble

Iconoclastic vocalist/composer Meredith Monk and her ensemble performed a program labelled "The Soul's Messenger," which showcased music from her entire career. She began with three solo a capella songs, which immediately put many of her famous extended vocal techniques on display, including overtone singing and various vibrato and glissando effects. "Click Song #2" from Light Songs was described as a duet for solo voice, and it indeed sounded like two independent voices—one singing, one clicking. Monk moved to the piano to sing two songs from her first ECM album Dolmen Music (ECM, 1981): "Gotham Lullaby" and "Travelling" (a dance in 5/4 time), as well as "Madwoman's Vision" from Book of Days. As she began the audition scene from her opera Atlas ensemble members joined her, playing their parts to perfection. Here as elsewhere, Monk's music required acting and movement in addition to extraordinary vocal technique. She turned over the stage to Allison Sniffin's voice and piano for "Prayer I." By the time the program arrived at selections from mercy and The Games the full ensemble had joined her, for a total of three voices (two playing keyboards) and woodwinds. "Memory Song" was notable for its litany of Earth memories: coffee, champagne, football and rain among them. The encore was another Dolmen Music selection. In "The Tale" an old woman bargains with Death, beginning with "I still have my hands..." An artist who truly deserves to be called visionary, Monk is still a spellbinding performer.

Theo Bleckmann Quintet

German-American vocalist Theo Bleckmann recently made his ECM Records debut with Elegy. His quintet features guitarist Ben Monder (who he has worked with for over 20 years), as well as pianist Nitai Hershkovits (subbing for Shai Maestro) and the rhythm team of bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck. The set opened with vocalise accompanied only by the piano; as the rest of the band joined in, their sensitivity to texture and dynamics quickly became apparent. When Bleckmann stopped to introduce the band, he explained that the music from Elegy was meant to be about death and transcendence, hoping that it wouldn't come across as depressing. He also teased right-hand man Monder by mentioning that he had won a Grammy for his work on David Bowie's final album (an accomplishment which Monder apparently doesn't like to make much of). The title tune featured guitar soundscapes and voice with considerable electronic modification—something that Bleckmann did throughout the performance, as a normal extension of his singing—which included looping and bass transposition. "Happiness" was an earlier song about the elusiveness of happiness, but it included an ebullient piano solo, and a bass solo. He introduced his cover of Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight" saying he took a happy song and made it really sad. True, but it was also a remarkably creative rearrangement, which included a beautiful unaccompanied piano solo and some of the overtone singing Bleckmann learned during his 15 years in Meredith Monk's ensemble. "Take My Life" opened with an amazing unaccompanied introduction by Hollenbeck, employing an array of metallic percussion. A terrific performance by the whole band, and another festival highlight.

Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder played a duet show the next day at The Standard. They have a long history of doing this, and drew on compositions from both of them (plus two covers). Bleckmann's "Orchard" and Monder's "Lake" showed the pair's conventional jazz side, voice and fingerstyle guitar with no electronic modifications. Before long the singer began adding harmonizer and looping to the mix. The standard "I Remember You" was treated to a humorous electronic stuttering effect, Johnny Mercer's famous lyrics periodically frozen—Monder created a massive looped buildup during his solo section, taking the song even further from its Great American Songbook roots. But that was nothing compared to the arrangement of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" that closed the set. It began with vocal noises, overtone singing, and strummed overdriven guitar chords. When Bleckmann started singing the well-known words and melody over that backdrop it came as a complete surprise. Proof, as if any was required by then, that with this duo just about anything could happen.

Cup (Nels Cline & Yuka C. Honda)

Guitarist Nels Cline is best known now as a member of Wilco, but for many years he was active in the West Coast improvisation community. He partnered with his wife and multi-instrumentalist Yuka C. Honda (best known as half of the heady trip-hop duo Cibo Matto) as Cup. The performance began with a gentle guitar loop, which Cline sang over- -the first evidence of what was likely pre-composed material. Then he began to build up the first of many dense guitar drones. Honda had some synthesizer soundscapes going, but there appeared to be technical issues with her rig, so her input was minimal at first. With that sorted out, she played a pretty synthesizer melody over more guitar arpeggios, and the pair took the first pause in the set (almost halfway). The music quickly got more frenetic after that, a mixture of drones and drum programs. Cline took several true guitar solos: one with trademark snaking chromatic lines, another a manic one with a wobbly electronic vibrato effect...culminating with him singing into his Fender Jazzmaster's pickups. Cline played like a man possessed: he made sounds I have never heard before with his array of electronic effects. The last part of the set was built around another song, Cline singing about flying fish (among other things), Honda answering with "I've seen them." Reminded me of the Doors, an unexpected stylistic reference point.

Supersilent

Supersilent is a supergroup in the world of Scandinavian ambient and jazz. Since the departure of drummer Jarle Vespestad they have been a trio: trumpeter Arve Henriksen's distinctive sound has graced many ECM albums as sideman, in addition to his solo albums. Helge Sten (as Deathprod) was a pioneer of dark ambient electronics, and keyboardist Ståle Storløkken has played with a broad array of Norwegian jazz and rock musicians. Henriksen and Storløkken had already played a gentle, largely acoustic duet the day before, which gave no indication of the sound of the trio. The dark stage enveloped in fog was the first sign that this would not be anything conventional. Atmospheric synthesizer sounds and trumpet calls at the opening, giving way to a low rumble...which soon built up to a thunderous crescendo. Henriksen spent a lot of time adding electronics with a laptop computer rather than playing trumpet. It wasn't all metallic shrieks, bells, and thunder: at one point things calmed down enough for a brief duet for trumpet and electric piano. But the amount of sheer noise generated cannot be overstated. I sometimes found myself hearing it in terms of massive natural sounds: a freight train rushing past, a storm at sea, or a thunderstorm, for example. The band members were clearly deep into it, often swaying rhythmically to their waves of sound. The concert finally came to an abrupt stop, thunderously received by the audience members who had stuck it out.

Henry Threadgill's Zooid

One of the final shows at the festival, woodwind player/composer Henry Threadgill won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings, 2015), recorded with his quintet Zooid. The unusual instrumentation is made up of Liberty Ellman (guitar), Christopher Hoffman (cello), Jose Davila (tuba, trombone), Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums), and the leader playing flute, bass flute, and alto saxophone. Despite the presence of a drummer, the music is probably best described as chamber jazz, with the bass function taken by either tuba or cello. Threadgill does not compose conventional jazz tunes with heads and solos: they are long, contrapuntal lines, with improvised solos embedded in the structure in ways that are not always sharply delineated. It's a chromatic harmonic language, but there is none of the shocking dissonance common in free jazz. It's still pretty abstract, though, and Threadgill did lose some audience by the end of his 80 minute set. A shame, especially since they played a tune with a groove towards the end! Threadgill made no announcements—including band introductions—which probably contributed to the sense of distance between musicians and listeners.

Wrapping Up

With seven music venues, Big Ears was even more diverse than past years. There was an electronic music theme—featuring artists like Musica Electronica Viva (plus concerts by the individual members) and Hans-Joachim Roedelius— that scheduling forced me to completely ignore. Also several Gavin Bryars Ensemble performances, to say nothing of the rock, folk, and New Age artists...and the films. It's simply a remarkable festival, attended by warm, open-minded music lovers: highly recommended to fans of any music outside of the mainstream.

Photo Credit: Zita Gillis
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