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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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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

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