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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.

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