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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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"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.

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