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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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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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