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.

Medeski Martin & Wood—MMW, as they are called more colloquially—had a two-hour time slot to stretch out in, and they took full advantage. In fact they played one long continuous set: if they stopped at any point I missed it! The sound was quite experimental for about the first half hour: beginning with mbira, portable organ and high arco bass; then tambourine and processed electric piano; a bass ostinato finally brought in the drum kit and the signature Hammond B3 organ, but it was several more minutes before funk rhythms in the drums and bass finally got to the familiar jam band sound. After about an hour the first surprise guest joined in: guitarist Marc Ribot. His first solo brought a blast of overdriven fusion guitar energy, raising the excitement level by a few notches. A rhythm guitar solo (with Wes Montgomery-style octaves) moved into blues territory, and it was time for the second surprise guest: bass clarinetist Ned Rothenberg. Rothenberg was immediately given space for a solo, with sparse, rubato accompaniment. After some more funk, the whole gang engaged in a noisy free-for-all, which is what they were doing when I left for the next show. Ribot and Rothenberg seem like unlikely jamming partners at first glance, but they have both played with MMW before, and the joy and chemistry was undeniable.

Saxophonist/flutist/composer Jonathan Gibson has a distinguished history with minimalist music. He was a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, appearing on such classic early Glass recordings as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Twelve Parts. His composition "Visitations" was originally released in 1973 on Glass' own Chatham Square record label. Clearly minimalist, but a departure from the pattern repetitions of Glass and others, it is a slow moving travelogue employing field recordings and drones. For this performance Gibson re-imagined the piece with modular synthesizers and a digital projection of the 16 mm film entitled "One Way " depicting a journey through the California desert which he shot in the early 1970s. The ensemble included three percussionists—whose contributions were generally more textural than rhythmic—an electronicist with synthesizers and a laptop, and Gibson himself playing a variety of woodwinds. Ultimately the piece felt like concerto, as Gibson the soloist moved from soprano saxophone to a small whistle, alto flute, flute, bamboo flute and percussive clickers, concluding with alto flute. The 35 minute length of the piece betrayed its LP record origins. Even with the technical updates, the piece shows its age. Still nice to hear a classic minimalist recording played live. It's the kind of thing Big Ears does every year.

March 24, 2018

Arto Lindsay & Paal Nilssen-Love/Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble/Jason Moran & Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell Trios/Diamanda Galás

You never know which Arto Lindsay you're going to get. Will it be the No Wave noise rocker, or the Brazilian pop singer? In his duets with Brazilian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love you get both, although the noise dominates. The set opened with an echo of the Marc Ribot/David Hidalgo show, as Lindsay sheepishly found the hum he was hearing was due to him not plugging in his guitar. Then the thunder began, with Lindsay's skronking guitar matched by Nilssen-Love's pounding drums. Somehow Lindsay managed to sing on top of this anti-accompaniment: two songs in Portuguese, and the American standard "Let's Get Lost" (which is associated with jazz trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker). It's truly remarkable how independent the vocals were: it's as if he was singing in a lounge somewhere. Lindsay began the second section with a rumbling looped chord from his 12-string Danelectro guitar, singing "If I Gave You My Love" as the drums entered, sparsely at first. Last I heard he was singing "Talk to Me."

This version of the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble included all of the members of Rocket Science (Parker on soprano saxophone; trumpeter Peter Evans; pianist Craig Taborn; and electronocist Sam Pluta) plus woodwind master Ned Rothenberg; cellist Okkyung Lee; and electronicist Ikue Mori. Parker announced that they would be giving a continuous performance, "perhaps for as long as an hour." Taborn began the piece alone (but with electronic processing), and Rothenburg entered on shakuhachi (the breathy traditional Japanese bamboo flute). About twelve minutes in soprano saxophone, flugelhorn and cello entered together playing fast lines. If it wasn't composed, it at least sounded pre-planned. Or maybe not: it's hard to tell with improvisers this attuned to each other. The texture shifted constantly, including a bass clarinet/flugelhorn duet; a soprano saxophone/bass clarinet duet; a trio with muted trumpet, cello and piano; and another trio with soprano saxophone, pocket trumpet and piano. After another planned-sounding entry by soprano saxophone, trumpet and cello, Lee's cello glissandi with electronic processing ended the performance. The end came after about 40 minutes: these are experienced improvisers who know when to stop. It was a varied performance that felt complete.

Pianist Jason Moran & legendary free jazz percussionist Milford Graves met for the first time at Big Ears. Graves employs an unusual drum kit—a timbale-like tenor drum with no bottom head (or snares), two bongos, floor tom, bass drum, and hi-hat (the only cymbals)—and a similarly unusual technique. He often used his elbow to change the pitch of his "snare," as is sometimes done on congas. His vocalizations are an integral part of his contribution, sometimes scatting percussively, sometimes chanting. Moran responded with a comparably wide variety of pianistic approaches. He could be frenetic or delicate; the set climax found him increasing in intensity using both ends of the keyboard. For the encore Graves was singing and Moran was whistling—after complete silence, Moran began playing quiet chords on the piano. The spell was broken when Graves needed help fixing his tenor drum stand—Moran joked that he thought they were having a moment. They resumed together in an upbeat mode, ending with a drum tattoo. This was a capacity show, audience and performers alike enjoying the sense of joy and discovery.

Seminal avant-garde reed player/composer Roscoe Mitchell is known for co-founding the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), in addition to an extensive solo catalog. The Roscoe Mitchell Trios represents the culmination of his work with four different trios, documented on the recent album Bells for the South Side (ECM, 2017)—although there were some player substitutions for this performance. The large scale composition combines the nine players in just about every possible combination, from soloists and small groups to the entire ensemble playing at once. The performance began with Mitchell conducting a massive tutti for the whole group, which was immediately interrupted by unaccompanied solos from trumpeter Hugh Ragin and pianist Craig Taborn. James Fei began the set playing electronics at this point; later he would move to sopranino saxophone. Two of the percussionists were the most visual performers on stage. Ches Smith moved between mallets, concert tubular bells and drum kit, while Tyshawn Sorey jumped to a piano when not standing behind a massive percussion cage. While there was clearly considerable space for individual improvisation, Mitchell kept the piece organized by often cuing individual players, occasionally conducting a group of them. After about an hour it all culminated in a frenetic free-for-all—then the bass began a Latin vamp, and the whole band played the lovely, tonal closer "Odwalla" as Mitchell introduced the band members one by one, giving each a brief playing spotlight, just like the album.

I had not seen the legendary singer/pianist/songwriter Diamanda Galás perform before. But she has a reputation for singing like someone possessed, and she did not disappoint. In the opening minutes she sung in a high operatic range and a low guttural one—and played clusters on the piano with her forearms. After that she moved to a fairly conventional ballad, followed by "The Thrill is Gone" (the B.B. King standard) which she rendered as a blues/torch song, augmented by some crazed singing and piano playing. "A Soul That's Been Abused" was another torch song; and the Spanish cover "Digame" was sung and played straight—it had plenty of emotional weight on its own. "O Death" is a traditional American folk song—it appeared on the soundtrack to the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"—which was rendered in an emotional falsetto. The encore (after tripping on stage and cursing out the place—the stage setting was dark, with white spots only at the beginning of the songs) was Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)," a traditional country song that has all the emotions Galás reveals in her performances, without any need to embellish the original.

March 25, 2018

Tyshawn Sorey Trio/Artist Talk: 30 Years With Bang on a Can Composers/BANGS (Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson & Ron Miles)/Nief-Norf—Steve Reich's "Quartet"/Bang on a Can All-Stars: 30 Years/Craig Taborn Quartet

Percussionist/composer/bandleader Tyshawn Sorey—who also plays trombone and piano—had already appeared at the festival with Roscoe Mitchell, and has frequently played with pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Steve Coleman. But his main creative outlet is his long-standing trio with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini. The pianist quietly came onstage and began the performance unaccompanied, for some 13 minutes. His meditative chords were joined first by Sorey, with a gradual roll on a huge bass drum, followed by gongs and vibraphone. Then the double bass entered, and the trio built in intensity. The rest of the set proceeded in a similar manner: without pause, or any stage announcements. I counted nine pieces altogether, but I could be wrong. The music included both abstract sounds and more conventional jazz trio approaches. They even swung on occasion; one of the selections included a Coltrane-like modal bass ostinato. The conclusion echoed the beginning: Sorey exited the stage, followed by Tordini, leaving Smyth playing alone. There were bows, but no announcements from the stage (and the toy piano in Smyth's setup never did get used). One of the most magical piano trios I have ever seen, and a great way to start Sunday at the festival.

BANGS (pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Mary Halvorson & cornetist Ron Miles) is a collective with history—but six years after their first performance, this was only their fourth. Moran acted as MC, but the repertoire was contributed by all of the members, and the opener "White Space" came from guitarist Halvorson. She opened it with a loop that included drum sounds (she used electronics often, but this was the only time they were used to add an instrument to the ensemble). They have a conversational style: the second tune included sections for unaccompanied piano, guitar and cornet duet, and unaccompanied guitar. Miles' ballad "Cupid" was a special showcase for his cornet, but the climax included fuzz guitar. Moran stopped to introduce the players, and explained that the band was named for the hair: "Mary named the band." The rest of the set included a tune with a repeated pattern that suddenly fell apart, only to have the fragments come together to form a traditional jazz head. There was room for stride piano accompaniment and swing-style rhythm guitar as well: this is a group of adventurous players, but with a deep understanding of jazz history. Halvorson played a bit of slide guitar. The closer was based around a rubato piano part—then Halvorson brought the rhythm loop back in, and the performance faded out on it. An altogether delightful performance, made a bit sweeter by the rarity.

Nief-Norf is a Knoxville-based New Music ensemble that always plays a role in the festival programming. They provided a wonderful interlude with their performance of Steve Reich's 2013 "Quartet" (for two pianos and two vibraphones). The performance benefited from the participation of percussionist Russ Hartenberger, an original member of Steve Reich & Musicians going back to the early '70s. In its relatively brief duration (about 20 minutes) the piece changed keys much more than his earlier classic minimalist compositions many times that length. It is always a treat to hear Reich played live, and this was no exception.

Bang on a Can All-Stars: 30 Years was the third and final Bang on a Can performance at the festival. Composers/co-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe were the official Composers in Residence this year. In the afternoon there was an Artist Talk panel with all three, which was full of stories about the founding of the festival and the All-Stars performance ensemble. John Cage was invited to the first performance. When he showed up he insisted on paying instead of being comped for admission. The trio credited composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass for their support, as well as being models for remaining connected to contemporary developments. The formation of the All-Stars was an unexpected development, which grew out of requests for Bang on a Can performances outside of New York City. The concert began with the U.S. premiere of "Big Space" by Michael Gordon for the Bang on a Can All-Stars with Nief-Norf. It was a true 360-degree experience, with the All-Stars flanked by eight trios (trombone, soprano saxophone, and glockenspiel/tamborine)—three on stage, two on the sides in the hall, plus three in the balcony. There was lots of textural shifts in space, as well as a section with saxophone lines that sounded like a homage to Terry Riley's seminal minimalist work "In C." Julia Wolfe's "Big Beautiful Dark & Scary" was based on a nervous tremolando ostinato, dissonant and scary. The shift from bass clarinet to clarinet signaled a slight lightening of the tone—followed by an abrupt stop, with ringing percussion fading out. I had to dash to the final concert, missing pieces by David Lang, Steve Martland, and Philip Glass.

Pianist Craig Taborn was arguably the Most Valuable Player at this year's festival. Having already appeared twice with saxophonist Evan Parker and with composer Roscoe Mitchell, he closed the festival with the Craig Taborn Quartet. Taborn began the set by praising the festival ("it's organized the way I listen to music") and introducing the band. It was the same lineup that recorded their debut album Daylight Ghosts (ECM, 2017): Taborn: piano, electronics; Chris Speed: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Chris Lightcap: acoustic bass, electric bass; Dave King (of The Bad Plus): drums, electronic percussion. The album featured a conversational ensemble sound: one of the most interesting things about seeing them perform live was seeing how the cuing to signal transitions was done. The set opened with atmospheric synthesizers, then the whole band playing rubato, building in intensity. Settling into a jerky ostinato, they repeated it for what seemed a very long time—surely longer than anything on the recording. A snare drum roll cued the end of the ostinato, while a piano cue signaled the final groove, and an abrupt stop. The rest of the set repeated the pattern: music like the album, but with more electronics and more energy. There were two tunes I would call ballads (although one of them was introduced by a sequencer pattern) featuring Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet. The final tune began with unaccompanied piano, followed by double bass: the full band built to another big repeated ostinato to end the set. A delightful conclusion to four days of music.

Big Ears is an embarrassment of riches, made even more so this year with the addition of several smaller venues. There were intimate musical performances and panel discussions held at the Visit Knoxville office downtown, as well as folk music at the Jig and Reel and music of all sorts at the Pilot Light and Magnolia Records (all of these are located in Knoxville's Old City neighborhood, not far from the Mill and Mine concert venue). Plus some events at the Knoxville Museum of Art, which I believe had been commonly used in the past. It was not uncommon for me to wish I could be two places at once—at least. Business as usual at this festival, which always leaves me exhausted but happy. Already looking forward to next year's surprises!

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