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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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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).

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