Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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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.
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