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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 21-24, 2019

The major focus of this year's Big Ears Festival was a celebration of ECM Records' 50th anniversary, which included a number of live performances (representing both the main label and the classical music imprint ECM New Series) as well as a panel discussion "ECM @ 50" (covered in a separate article here). There were about 20 concerts, the largest group of ECM artists under one banner in the United States (and one of the largest in the world) during this celebratory 50th year.

Even if he did not receive the traditional "composer in residence" title, ambient music pioneer Harold Budd (who hates the "ambient" label, it must be said) was featured in three concerts as both composer and performer. Opening night has usually begun with a big kickoff event. Nashville Ballet's "Lucy Negro Redux" occupied that slot in the grand Tennessee Theatre—but there was somewhat above average counter-programming on the schedule, and by all accounts the event was far from capacity.

March 21, 2019 (Thursday)

Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan/Mathias Eick Quintet/Tim Story Presents The Roedelius Cells

Guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Thomas Morgan have developed a splendid rapport playing duets, which was on full display on the festival's opening night. They opened with Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," which is also the title of their most recent 2019 ECM release. The entire set was heavily weighted towards tunes from that album. But the versions they played often diverged from the ones previously recorded. The second piece began with rubato electric guitar looping (including backwards sounds)—which turned out to be an introduction to "Save The Last Dance For Me," a song played in a medley with "Wildwood Flower" on the album.

Billy Strayhorn's stately ballad "Lush Life" was played very freely, but still recognizable, which lead into "Alice In Wonderland." That standard featured a guitar solo with octaves, as well as a beautiful extended double bass solo (with quiet, minimal guitar accompaniment). This time "Wildwood Flower" stood alone, with a long guitar loop ending. The set concluded with the James Bond movie theme "You Only Live Twice," with a complex multi-voice looped ending. A wonderful way to begin the weekend of music.

Norwegian trumpeter/composer/vocalist/keyboardist Mathias Eick and his quintet concentrated on the music from his album Ravensburg (ECM Records, 2018). But despite Eick's joke about jet lag the band sounded sharp, and frequently put out a higher, more extroverted energy than the recorded versions. They opened with "Family" and "Children." Pianist Erlend Slettvoll (who was not on the album) began with arpeggios before being joined by the full band. Eick's vocalise and synthesizer was doubled by Hakon Aases violin. Eick's falsetto vocalizing (and his breathy trumpet tone) both recall fellow Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen.

"Friends" moved firmly into a Miles Davis-style rock beat. Drummer Torstein Lofthus was leading the charge here—as he did throughout the set— abetted by substitute electric bassist Nikolai Eilertsen. This tune had a quiet ending, but there was no denying the electric energy that pervaded the set. Lofthus took a big unaccompanied solo to begin "Oslo" from Skala (ECM Records, 2011)—"where we all live," as the leader explained. He also spoke about his awe at being on the stage where Bill Frisell had just played: Frisell was a huge influence. The set ended as Ravensburg had, with "For My Grandmothers." Eick's high falsetto vocals accompanied by only violin and piano was a haunting ending.

"Roedelius Cells" is a sound installation by composer/musician Tim Story which draws from the work of German electronic music pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius (known for his work with Cluster, Harmonia and Brian Eno). The installation played music improvised by Roedelius on piano and synthesizer through an eight-channel circle of speakers. It created a 360-degree surround sound environment which was different each time. There were numerous opportunities throughout the festival to experience the installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art (which also hosted several other events). A fascinating experience for ambient music fans.

March 22, 2019 (Friday)

Joan La Barbara, Alvin Lucier & The Ever Present Orchestra/Mary Halvorson's Code Girl/Ralph Towner/Absînt (Aurora Nealand, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell & David Torn)/David Torn

Veteran experimental composer Alvin Lucier is best known for his membership in the Sonic Arts Union (with fellow composer/performers Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma). His work has investigated physical properties of sound, such as phase interference between closely tuned pitches and the resonance of spaces, both well represented in this program. Legendary avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara opened the concert with "Double Rainbow," a very minimal piece in which her long-tone singing produced beating effects against an electronic drone.

"Braid" brought on The Ever Present Orchestra, initially only electronics and three saxophones, which produced a denser web of difference tones. "Two Circles" added four violins and a piano to the mix, producing a shifting, slow-moving timbre which also utilized spatial elements as the sound moved from one side of the stage to the other. "Tilted Arc" featured a bowed xylophone with the strings and horns (plus the ever-present electronic drones): an interesting timbral shift. How ever minimal the music was, the programming still kept it from becoming completely static. There was a brief intermission, which unfortunately signaled a significant audience exit. Lucier himself came onstage and performed his 1969 minimalist classic "I am sitting in a room." The piece consists of a short recitation which is recorded and played back. That playback is recorded again. The process is repeated until the recording has taken on the resonant frequencies of the room, the words completely obliterated. It is a simple process, but one which is still fascinating and surprising in action.

Guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson has an extremely busy playing schedule, but Code Girl represents her most personal work. Built around a unique collection of songs penned by Halvorson, Code Girl features powerful young singer Amirtha Kidambi, along with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and the empathetic rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara (colleagues in the trio Thumbscrew, which also played during the festival).

Halvorson opened the set unaccompanied, soloing with the electronics that characterize her style. The set wasn't long enough to play the entire album, but it opened with the same song: "My Mind I Find in Time." Kidambi's electrifying vocal was followed by a guitar/trumpet duet, then by the first of many powerful Akinmusire trumpet solos. Over the course of the set there was slide guitar, free playing, and falsetto vocal shrieks in addition to Kidambi's serpentine singing (which was frequently doubled on guitar). The instrumental "Off The Record" had an extended unaccompanied double bass introduction from Formanek, an especially fleet guitar solo with whammy pedal (a particular Halvorson trademark), and a trumpet solo that morphed into a strong swing feel.

"Deepest Similar" was the ballad of the set, with arco double bass, and an especially acrobatic unaccompanied trumpet solo. "Possibility of Lightning" broke the pattern of the album tracks—second on the album, moved to the end of the live set. "Drop The Needle" was the concluding song in both, though. It featured a woodblock pulse; a fast, lyrical guitar solo with echo; trumpet and double bass solos; and a full stop before the vocals reentered. A fitting conclusion, spotlighting the band both individually and collectively.

Guitarist/composer Ralph Towner was a model ECM artist even before he joined the label, making prototypical ECM multicultural music with the band Oregon. His solo guitar performances have formed a parallel track, a personal artistic statement which has grown steadily over the course of his career. His solo classical guitar recital opened with "Saunter," which he described as a "newer" composition. It was followed by the standard "My Foolish Heart," the title tune from his 2017 ECM solo album. Towner said his version was inspired by pianist Bill Evans. The irony was that he has recently had heart trouble, which had led to a triple bypass. He said that he felt stronger than ever, and recommended triple bypass surgery highly! "At First Light" was a working title for a new tune: this was the second public performance. "I'll Sing To You" is another original, which Towner described as "one of my more romantic tunes." He also added that no one wanted to hear him actually sing. "Guitarra Picante" is an early tune, titled before he actually knew Italian (he lives in Italy now). "Make Someone Happy" is another favorite standard, which included a nice little coda. "Dolomiti Dance" was an excellent conclusion to the set, a dervish-like piece which featured Towner's dancing fingers.

Towner's solo playing has only deepened over the years: he has never sounded better.

The big draw of Absînt was the first meeting of experimental guitarists Bill Frisell and David Torn. But of course there was more to it than that, as the set was a single four-way improvisation. The set began with Frisell's rhythmic pointillism, joined by Torn's textural improv, with saxophonist Tim Berne (a frequent collaborator) adding squealing sounds, courtesy of a water bottle inserted into the bell of his saxophone. Aurora Nealand initially added percussion, before moving to accordion. Berne's pedal tones were joined by melodic accordion riffs.

There was a cool down about 25 minutes in, with the saxophone and accordion going into a new melodic and harmonic territory. Five minutes later there were fast overlapping guitars. And five minutes after that there was group cacophony. Guitar-based chordal patterns moved into some extreme whammy gestures from Torn, which in turn led into gentle loops, and a saxophone melody. After a brief distorted Torn eruption there were drones, saxophone pedal tones, and a series of glissandos from David Torn to end. Quite a racket! It will be interesting to see what these players do if they meet again.

David Torn followed up this group performance with a solo looped improvisation in the same performance space (The Standard). He has been doing this for many years, documented most recently on only sky (ECM Records, 2015). This set began much more gently, with a lyrical chord progression that he soloed over, featuring some of his trademark whammy bar manipulation. This morphed into a big dense loop—almost certainly built from some of Torn's previous solo lines, but it's always hard to tell, as he values surprise in the process (for player and audience alike). After manipulating this loop (including backwards playback) Torn played some stuttering parts using the HEXE reVOLVER, a favorite effect pedal of his.

There was still time for more textural contrast: the density was pared back to a short guitar loop, which he then added straight-toned guitar arpeggios to, preparing the way for a frenetic noise solo. At this point Torn achieved Absînt-level density all by himself. After building up to a crescendo (including distorted guitar with pitch-shifting), he brought the performance to an end with a rising glissando employing a high, resonant sound that did not much resemble a guitar. Torn's looping employs much more radical real-time processing than average: his technique is about virtuosic sound engineering as much as trademark guitar solos that alternately purr, buzz and soar. Anything can happen, and usually does.

March 23, 2019 (Saturday)

Bill Frisell "Sound & Silence"/Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt/Avishai Cohen Quartet/Tim Berne's Snakeoil/DeJohnette Coltrane Garrison/Harold Budd & ACME/Bill Frisell & The Mesmerists and Bill Morrison Films

Banjoist/vocalist Abigail Washburn hosted two "Sound & Silence" events at the festival. The description reads: "In this 50 minute experience, there is arrival, the sound of a bell, silence, music, silence, the sound of a bell, departure." So it was essentially a musical meditation. For this first event organizers were surprised by the turnout, but they managed to fit everyone in to the dance studio space.

How silent can a building in downtown Knoxville get? Not very: in this case the sound of footsteps on the floor above were very audible (although under normal circumstances they wouldn't be). Guitarist Bill Frisell (who was playing with guitar and amp only, none of his usual electronic effects) began playing very sparsely, adding more structure as he progressed. He finally moved into the activist folk song "We Shall Overcome" before he concluded.

Washburn invited audience members who wanted to talk about the experience to stay, so the "departure" part wasn't written in stone. The opportunity to slow down in the midst of a sometimes frenetic festival experience was a common observation. At the urging of Béla Fleck, Frisell spoke briefly about his experience. He said it was nice to just play his guitar without audience expectations—he hadn't even been introduced at the beginning of the event—and that was how he always tried to approach his performances. It was a very enjoyable experience, which hopefully will be repeated in future.

Drummer/composerMatt Wilson's Honey and Salt returns to the music on the album Honey and Salt (Palmetto Records, 2017), an ambitious, eclectic setting of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, which is both sung and narrated. In Knoxville Wilson was joined by his band, featuring Dawn Thomson (guitar & voice), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet & flugelhorn), Jeff Lederer (reeds) and Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar).

"Soup" was the jubilant opener, as it was on the album. Thomson took a rocking guitar solo (with a bit of outside playing for spice). After "Anywhere and Everywhere People" and the ballad "Stars, Songs, Faces" Wilson paused for announcements. He said he was from Knoxville...Illinois, and joked they had "small ears" festivals (as in corn). Journalist Nate Chinen came onstage as the first guest narrator for "We Must Be Polite," a humorous poem about meeting a gorilla, set to a Bo Diddley beat.

"Fog" uses a recorded Sandburg recitation with drum accompaniment. "It's fun to blow with Carl,' Wilson commented. Sandburg was a jazz fan, so it certainly feels right. "Choose" is set to a military march, lustily sung by the whole band (later joined by the audience). Wilson's drum solo included a fun bit of stage business where he removed his hi-hat cymbals from the stand and played them like marching cymbals, one in each hand.

Lederer took many memorable solos, but his tenor saxophone on "Paper 1" was especially intense. "As Wave Follows Wave" was moved from the beginning of the program (on the album) to near the end. Wind began with a lovely unaccompanied bass solo, joined by Noordhuis' flugelhorn. Wilson's recitation was echoed at the end by Thomson and Lederer to haunting effect. He dedicated "To Know Silence Perfectly" to saxophonist Dewey Redman and double bassist Charlie Haden, both of them longtime playing partners. The set concluded with a rousing reprise of "Choose."

A special ending to a truly joyous concert: easily a festival highlight. Rarely is such musical excellence coupled with such a team spirit.

Trumpeter/composer Avishai Cohen drew from his two ECM albums Into The Silence (2016) and Cross My Palm With Silver (2017) for this set. Drummer Marcus Gilmore began "Into The Silence" unaccompanied, setting up a higher-energy groove than the record. A later breakdown featured Cohen and double bassist Barak Mori. "Life and Death" also spotlighted Mori, who played a pensive solo, complimenting Cohen's muted trumpet.

The band played one unrecorded tune: "Departure" was a musical setting of an untitled poem by Israeli poet Zelda. Cohen recited the poem (which he had translated into English), with accompaniment from the rest of the band. Pianist Fabian Almazan provided expansive unaccompanied introductions to closer "Shoot Me In The Leg" (and an earlier ballad), as well as leading a high-energy trio segment. Gilmore finally used the large gong that had been behind him the whole time, and Cohen played his trumpet into the open piano, producing a lovely sympathetic ringing sound. A fitting ending for a generally lyrical concert.

Alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne's Snakeoil has expanded into a quintet on recent recordings Incidentals (ECM Records, 2017) and You've Been Watching Me (ECM Records, 2015). But for this show the band was pared down to the core quartet with pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Oscar Noriega. Berne announced that he was into his ninth day on a 1,000 calories per day diet...and it was ECM's fiftieth anniversary. "Surface Noise" was the opener, and Smith was busy with vibes, gongs and cymbals before getting behind his drum kit. The tune included a bass/drums duo before ending on a repeated riff, the band stopping on a dime. "More Notes Passive" had a fast, elaborate head—like Ornette Coleman on steroids, a Berne trademark. It was a showcase for Mitchell's piano: he played duets with drums, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone.

"Third Option" was announced as being from their new album...that came out last week (which goes along with his statement that if everyone bought the band's CDs after the show it's entirely possible that they would be re-signed). The trick of putting a water bottle in the saxophone bell made a return, and Smith played his drum kit with his hands before switching to congas (as well as playing vibes). The final piece ended with solo saxophone soloing over the rhythm section, before being joined by the clarinet for a long-line theme. A very cohesive band, with a remarkable balance between Berne's compositions and improvisation.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette joined with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bass guitarist Matt Garrison—both sons of former playing partners—for In Movement (ECM, 2016). This appearance was a rare live performance. The set began with DeJohnette at the piano, Coltrane on soprano saxophone. Garrison began adding electronic treatments to his bass part as DeJohnette moved to the drums. Coltrane picked up his tenor saxophone, and the groove deepened. There was a stop, and a brief solo feature for processed bass. Seeing the music happen definitely increased appreciation for Garrison's contributions, especially the role of his electronics..

The band came out of that into a new groove, and Coltrane blew an absolutely scorching soprano saxophone solo. Garrison followed with a bass solo using echo, including two-handed tapping of arpeggios. In short, everyone was on form, and there was no question about the young players' ability to hold their own with DeJohnette. This long improvisation was followed by a version of the John Coltrane standard "Alabama" (which was the opening track on the album). A great nod to the shared history of the players, rewarding for performers and audience alike.

For his second concert of the festival legendary ambient composer Harold Budd was joined by ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) and keyboardist Tim Story for a performance of old and new work. Budd has rejected the "ambient" label—his own term is "soft pedal"— but it is undeniably minimalist. This was very well demonstrated by the opening solo gong piece (perhaps a relatively brief version of his early composition "Lirio") which consisted of about 12 minutes of a percussionist exploring the possibilities of a single gong, first using his fingers, then beaters, exploring the possible sounds over the entire surface. The rest of ACME came onstage, in the form of a string quartet. Story played a synthesizer pad, and Budd himself contributed sparse piano. The next several pieces were built around the strings, probably including music from the Budd album Avalon Sutra (Samadhi Sound, 2005). Beautiful, still musical moments, each just a few minutes long. The string writing was not merely a series of long tones and chords: there were distinct melodies as well, even call and response passages.

Story and Budd switched off at one point, and the composer spent most of the set adding synthesizer to the string music. Sounds like ghostly overtones, or glockenspiel-like bell tones. For the final selections Budd moved to a Fender Rhodes electric piano and the strings were joined by the percussionist, this time playing tubular chimes. Adding more instruments does not necessarily result in denser textures in Budd's music: there was added timbral color, but no reduction in the silences.

This was a rare opportunity to hear Budd's music in performance, and it did not disappoint.

Guitarist/composer Bill Frisell has composed film music for several projects, including three Bill Morrison films and music for the silent films of Buster Keaton. In 2003, Frisell created the score for The Mesmerist, Morrison's edit of an artfully deteriorating print of a silent Lionel Barrymore film. Frisell joined his steadfast rhythm section of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen for a selection of new and repurposed music.

The trio music flowed easily from scene to scene—there were monitors on stage so the musicians could track the film progress—stopping periodically for dramatic scene changes. There were too many charts visible for it to have been significantly improvised. But it certainly often sounded like that, due to the long playing history of this trio. There were places where the music clearly took its cue from the visuals: a railway scene was given rhythmic treatment in parallel, with a neat little repeating coda to end on time with the film sequence.

A sequence focusing on a romantic relationship got the sly wordplay nod of Frisell's often recorded tune "Strange Meeting." That music transitioned into a fast waltz, but returned to "Strange Meeting" for a final scene showing a couple on screen. Elsewhere there was swing, and some of Frisell's Americana music, which is how the final scene of the film concluded.

An interesting synthesis of music and visuals. The Bill Morrison film was just abstract enough to provide a structure, without dictating the musical content. Frisell and his trio seemed to relish the challenge of accompanying the film, so it really was the best of both worlds.

March 23, 2019 (Sunday)

Vijay Iyer & Craig Taborn/Nik Bärtsch's Ronin/Sun of Goldfinger/Harold Budd & Friends

The improvisations of pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn were recently documented on The Transitory Poems (ECM, 2019). They brought the same spontaneity to this performance. Experiencing this music live does offer a distinct advantage over listening to a recording: in addition to the live energy (and the knowledge that everything is unedited), there is at least some possibility of seeing who is playing what. This performance was structured differently than the album, consisting of four improvisations ranging between 10 and 20 minutes each, for a total of an hour.

The set opened with fast runs from both players, followed by a sudden slow down with quiet repeated chordal passages. The music then became increasingly spare, with Taborn playing inside the piano at one point. The second piece was initiated by Iyer's rhythmic figures, answered by Taborn's chords. This built to a Steve Reich-like ostinato, with Iyer muting his piano's bass strings.

At this point they rose, took their bows, and surprised the audience by switching pianos. At the very least this provided a different perspective on the duo for the second half. It began with overlapping Romantic sounding arpeggios, building to a big rumbling climax before calming down again. Taborn introduced a line in more conventional jazz solo style, which he then traded off to Iyer. The final segment featured a great deal of playing inside the piano from both players. Iyer took the bass end, Taborn the treble, producing a variety of thumping, plucking and buzzing sounds. The whole concert came to a gentle close.

The rock concert-style stage fog that greeted the audience promised a different experience, and Swiss composer/pianist Nik Bärtsch and his band Ronin fully delivered on that promise. Ronin was stripped down to a quartet—the same personnel that appeared on Awase (ECM, 2018)—Sha (bass clarinet & alto saxophone), Thomy Jordi (electric bass), Kaspar Rast (drums), and of course the leader on piano.

The band played a slow, atmospheric open (in the absence of stage announcements, it must surely have been a "Modul," probably "Modul 60") which moved into a repetitive rhythmic pattern. The rubato and the rhythmic alternated, punctuated by an alto saxophone solo and an electric bass solo. At one point the stage lights were synchronized to the rhythmic changes, an effective use of rock-style stagecraft. Bärtsch introduced the band, and noted that their first appearance in the U.S. was at an earlier Big Ears festival (in the Bijou Theatre: they graduated to the larger Tennessee Theatre this year).

"Modul 58" followed, as it had on the album. As on the previous tune, the arrangement was expanded considerably: clearly the group has lived with the material since the original recording. The arrangement was expansive, indeed. After a regular rhythm (established by muting inside the piano) it included rubato interludes, an unaccompanied saxophone solo, a section with piano, bass and drums (sounding like a conventional rhythm section), and a piano/electric bass duet. The tune concluded with a driving rhythm (the leader on electric piano) and a sharp rhythmic end. A terrific concert, and a fine first experience of hearing Ronin live.

Sun of Goldfinger is an improvisational project with guitarist David Torn, saxophonist Tim Berne, and percussionist Ches Smith. The band stems from the long playing relationship between Torn and Berne. After six year of gigs, they finally released an album: Sun of Goldfinger (ECM, 2019). The name? It's what happens when you ask David Torn to name the band.

This set opened with guitar and sax playing lines together. Smith started a sequencer pattern, then kicked in a rock beat. Next: Torn whammy bar guitar craziness, followed by the whole band locking into a groove. Torn accompanied a Berne solo (without percussion) which gradually decreased in volume, before rising again to a full band climax at about halfway into the set.

In the second half there was more Torn whammy bar craziness; Berne making squealing noises with a water bottle in the bell of his saxophone (a recurring motif all weekend); and a big drum climax. The improvisation concluded with guitar and saxophone accompanied by drums and electronics, before a final electronic drum pattern with guitar.

It was a more direct approach than the subtle textures of the album, which doesn't make it better. But it made its point, in a different way.

Harold Budd & Friends

The final Harold Budd concert was a long form performance version of Budd's "As Long As I Can Hold My Breath" from Avalon Sutra with Tim Story (keyboard & electronics), Terrence Budd (guitars and keyboards), Sean Connors (percussion), Trenton Takaki (piano) and ACME on strings and reeds. A beautiful, meditative experience, and a fine way to end the festival.

Photo Credit: Mark Sullivan
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