Big Ears Festival 2018

Mark Sullivan By

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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 22-25, 2018

Knoxville's Big Ears Festival has traditionally kicked things off with a big piece by a high-visibility headliner. This year was to have featured a live performance of guitarist Nels Cline's Lovers project, an ambitious re-imagination of romantic "mood music" which was to be performed with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and guest soloists. But the Spring snowstorms across the Northeast had other ideas, making travel too difficult to allow for adequate rehearsal. So adjustments were made to Thursday night's opening schedule.

March 22, 2018

Meshell Ndegeocello/David Hidalgo & Marc Ribot/Jaga Jazzist

Bassist/singer/songwriter MeShell NdegeOcello opened the concert in the large Tennessee Theatre with an intimate show that had originally been scheduled in the smaller Bijou Theatre. Accompanied by guitarist Chris Bruce (who played acoustic guitar most of the time), her set consisted mainly of covers, many of them from her recently released album Ventriloquism. She seemed bemused to be playing the larger venue. After saying "Hello Knoxville. I'm just going to play some songs. Thanks for coming," she launched into "Grace," from Bitter (Maverick, 1999)—the only one of her songs in the set. Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" was next, followed by Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne:" she started it with just guitar, finally adding her bass, including her first solo of the night. Like all of these covers, the arrangements were stark and emotional. Ndegeocello gets to the heart of the song without histrionics. The Cohen cover appeared on Pour une me Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone (Naïve, 2012), and two Nina Simone songs came next: "Be My Husband" and "Real Real." Back to more recent sources for "Nite and Day" (Al B. Sure!'s 1988 single), and a lovely treatment of "Waterfalls" (TLC, 1995). A comparatively low-key festival opening, but effective nonetheless.

Fumbling with his guitar connection after coming onstage, Marc Ribot joked that he and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) "have a slick Las Vegas show prepared." Maybe not slick, but the pair have been touring (Hidalgo later mentioned that they had performed in Nashville the previous night), and they were clearly well attuned to each other. The cowboy folk ballad "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" featured Ribot's vocals, and an elaborate introduction for both acoustic guitars. Hidalgo took the vocal spot on what sounded like a Spanish song (including impressive flamenco-style lead playing from Ribot). The pop song "It's Just a Matter of Time" got a second life as a country song, which is how the duo played it (Ribot switched to electric guitar for it). Ribot picked up a Mexican vihuela for "Dos Traficanos," a song about two pot smugglers. Ribot and Hidalgo played an acoustic guitar duet, then were about to do a Lefty Frizzell song as I had to head out for the next show. Ribot is an unusually eclectic player. Probably best known as a free jazz player and a left of center session player (e.g. with Tom Waits), he has also played classical music and Cuban music. I have never detected a trace of irony in anything he does. He seems to genuinely love many kinds of music, and always completely commits to whatever he is playing at the time. And of course this repertoire is right down David Hidalgo's alley.

Jaga Jazzist is a Norwegian experimental band. Often classified as "nu jazz," they are in fact extremely eclectic. Jazz is part of the mix, but only one stylistic component among many. They have a jazz-rock sound, with a tremendous amount of energy, as well as a dynamic stage presentation. It is brilliant both literally and figuratively: the stage lighting is dramatic, and frequently extremely bright—definitely more of a rock stage presentation than a jazz one. They are an eight-piece band, with a lot of doubling on instruments. So there can be as many as three guitars, four keyboards, or four percussionists—in addition to the basic instrumentation of three horns, bass, guitar, keyboards and drums. "Starfire" opened the set with a sound reminiscent of Frank Zappa, the first of several selections from the album of the same name (Ninja Tune, 2015). It was followed by a tune that began with a ballad feel (with a horn section of trombone, soprano saxophone and tuba) before speeding up into a Spanish groove. It is primarily an ensemble sound, but mention should be made of Lars Horntveth's effective solos—on guitar, saxophones, and lap steel. Another piece began with a minimalist pulse and sequencer that recalled Tangerine Dream. We were treated to the world premiere live performance of "Prokrastinopel," their current single. It included a lovely solo from trombonist Erik Johannessen, accompanied only by mournful keyboards. A Jaga Jazzist concert is a kaleidoscopic experience: rich in visual and musical variety. I look forward to hearing them again.

March 23, 2018

Bang on a Can All-Stars/Rocket Science/Kid Koala's "Satellite" Turntable Orchestra/Jenny Scheinman 'Mischief & Mayhem' with Nels Cline & Scott Amendola/Medeski Martin & Wood/Jon Gibson's "Visitations"

The Bang on a Can "Field Recordings" project has asked a variety of composers to find a recording of something that already exists—a voice, a sound, a snippet of melody—and then write a new piece around it. There are now more than 30 commissioned works; the Bang on a Can All-Stars played a selection of them. They opened with Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe's "Reeling," a rhythmic dervish based upon a reel sung by a singer from Quebec. Florent Gyhs' "An Open Cage" used recitation by the seminal American avant-garde composer John Cage. It is not pitched speech, but the music tracked the vocal cadence of the words. The next two selections employed visual recordings: Michael Gordon's "Gene Takes a Drink" (Gordon is the second of the co-founders) and Christian Marclay's "Fade to Slide." The Marclay piece made especially good use of visuals with sound, including clattering gag teeth, water running, glass breaking, and musical instrument sounds from trumpet, piano, violin and accordion—to frequently humorous effect. David Lang (the third and final of the Bang on a Can composer/founders) used the sound of knives being sharpened for "unused swan." Todd Reynolds employed a preacher for "Seven Sundays," while Caroline Shaw's "Really Craft When You" featured a quilter describing her craft. Steve Reich contributed "The Cave of Machpelah." But Nick Zammuto's video-based "Real Beauty Turns" brought down the house with its dated, frequently hilarious beauty ads. Having heard most of these as recordings, I can say they are far more effective in performance. Even the audio-based pieces benefit from the visual contrast between the live performers and the recordings.

Trumpeter Peter Evans' Rocket Science is a free improvisation supergroup, the result of a dream lineup he pitched to a European festival in 2012. He is joined by the legendary soprano saxophonist Evan Parker, increasingly visible pianist Craig Taborn (in the first of several performances at the festival), and electronocist Sam Pluta (who contributed by processing the playing of the others in real time). The set opened with frenetic free blowing, Pluta's processing contributing a distinctly electronic component to what is an otherwise acoustic ensemble. They played for a half hour before taking a break. There was a piano/trumpet duet (with Evans vocalizing into his trumpet at one point); an extended saxophone solo (featuring Parker's famous circular breathing technique, which allows him to play without stopping to take a breath); and some unaccompanied piano. Evans opened the next segment with solo trumpet, joined by processing that stayed close to the source sound, demonstrating that not all of Pluta's operations resulted in completely foreign, electronic sounds. This set included a fast, frenetic saxophone/trumpet duet that found the two players generating a texture much like the opening one with the entire band. One would probably have to be a hard core free improvisation fan to fully appreciate this sound, dense and dissonant as it frequently was. But there were moments of contrast, and undeniably brilliant playing by everyone.

Montreal-based producer and composer Eric San, better known as the DJ Kid Koala, hosted Kid Koala's "Satellite" Turntable Orchestra several times during the festival, taking over the performance space The Square Room for the better part of Friday and Saturday. The space was filled with dozens of DJ decks: each had a turntable with loudspeaker, fader, an envelope filter, and a set of custom made 7-inch records. Plus a bright spotlight, which served as both a part of the light show and a means of instructing the DJs about with record to play. And we were all DJs: the Turntable Orchestra is a full audience participation event. The records contained different long tones, which were blended in various combinations via light cues—the room was often full of several simultaneous pitches coming from different directions, a rich 360 degree listening experience. Kid Koala's source material was ambient soundscapes formed by guitars, keyboards, and vocals from Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini. These were actual songs from his album music to draw to: satellite (Arts & Crafts, 2017) which he describes as "a winter record," taking its cue from the frozen Canadian winter. He typed the lyrics on a screen as they went by. My DJ skills are still pretty minimal, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and would recommend it to anyone. Kid Koala also performed a lovely turntable version of "Moon River," his mother's favorite song.

Violinist Jenny Scheinman's 'Mischief & Mayhem' band was another all-star affair, with guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and drummer Scott Amendola. Cline got so much space that it almost made up for the cancellation of Lovers: he took an extended solo on the fourth tune (not sure of the title, but it followed a new, untitled ballad) that culminated in one of his patented electronic interludes, where his guitar is so processed that it ceases to sound like a guitar. After a new song called "Sweet Rider" they played "The Cape," which is named for Scheinman's dad's favorite surf spot, Cape Mendocino. She told a funny story about her research for the tune: she attempted to surf, "praying for dear life" the whole time. Of course the tune gave Cline an opportunity for surf guitar, which he took full advantage of. The closer was a pretty piece called "Antenna." It featured the violin, but also included brushwork from Amendola, a double bass solo from Sickafoose, and atmospheric guitar at the end. Great creative energy for the whole set, and enthusiastic response from the crowd at The Standard.
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