Big Ears Festival 2017

Mark Sullivan By

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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 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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