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Big Ears Festival 2024

Big Ears Festival 2024

Courtesy Andy Feliu


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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 21-24, 2024

After last year's triumphant tenth anniversary, the festival returned with the slogan "The adventure continues." The iconic and influential Nonesuch Records' 60th anniversary was celebrated with performances by Brad Mehldau, Caroline Shaw, Darcy James Argue, Mary Halvorson, Davone Tines, Sam Amidon, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Yasmin Williams, Rhiannon Giddens, Laurie Anderson and Molly Tuttle, and a rare live performance by Robin Holcomb.

Electronica pioneer King Britt curated a fourteen-artist, four-day Blacktronika program with legendary artists and young visionaries. He joined a full-fledged roster of hip-hop influencers and innovators like Armand Hammer, MAVI, and Roc Marciano.

2023 Pulitzer Prize-winner Rhiannon Giddens was in residence performing several different programs; four of his bands celebrated the legacy of NEA Jazz Master and 2016 Pulitzer recipient Henry Threadgill; and guitarist Marc Ribot's 70th birthday celebration featured his Ceramic Dog along with a myriad of surprises.

This year, Big Ears had the opportunity to present two very special programs multiple times during the festival weekend. Due to the unique nature of these performances in their smaller, more intimate venues, a separate add-on ticket was required (a festival first). Performing in support of his chart-topping, ambient flute recording, New Blue Sun, André 3000 and his ensemble performed five intimate concerts in three different venues spanning the festival's 4-day weekend. Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic Chord performed a series of concerts in a setting of Abstract #1 from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals in Dream Light, composed by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela for cellist Charles Curtis.

Thursday, March 21

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is arguably the current standard-bearer for ECM's brand of Nordic cool. He also plays electronics in his trio, with Steinar Raknes on double bass and electronics and Jarle Vespestad on drums. The presence of a smoke machine in their stage setup was the first clue that this might not be a classic jazz piano trio. The show opened with arco double bass (a frequent choice by Raknes), joined by exploratory piano and drums played with soft beaters. They went straight into a rhapsodic tune reminiscent of ECM stalwart Keith Jarrett. After a wildly uninhibited piano/drums duet, a segment of atmospheric electronics ended gently with Raknes whistling into his double bass pickup. Raknes is a real wild card in the group. He can and does play a traditional role in the rhythm section, but he also uses electronics to supply soundscapes and lead lines well out of the bass's range by using an octave divider. A lyrical piano/double bass duet again featured high-register arco playing. In a later explosive solo, Raknes made his bass sound like a fuzz guitar. The closing piece was an electronics showcase, with Gustavsen soundscaping his piano and playing a high theremin-like lead line. This trio is far more playful and uninhibited than their recordings indicate. They looked like they were having a good time, as did their appreciative audience.

Mary Halvorson Amarylis

The sextet that recorded guitarist Mary Halvorson's Amarylis (Nonesuch Records, 2022) recently released the sequel Cloudward (Nonesuch Records,2024). Halvorson was joined by trumpeter Adam O'Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, double bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara (a frequent collaborator of hers). The first two songs came from Cloudward. They represent the further evolution of Halvorson's compositions for this unique ensemble. The following three songs were all new and full of surprises. The first featured call and response between guitar and horns, but after a guitar solo with plenty of her trademark whammy pedal pitch bends, they played a long-note melody line. A fast tune followed, full of repetitive patterns that sounded looped, building up to a rush of energy. An unexpected rock rhythm animated the third tune, culminating in a distorted guitar solo with only bass and drums: a power trio! An exciting new approach enthusiastically received by the audience.

Charles Lloyd

Veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd presented music from The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow (Blue Note Records, 2024). He was joined by pianist Jason Moran, double bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Eric Harland (who was substituting for Brian Blade). The set began as the album had, with the hymn-like "Defiant, Tender Warrior." "The Lonely One" opened with a piano/tenor saxophone duet and featured an extended, dramatic double bass solo. Lloyd switched to alto flute for "Booker's Garden" and picked up maracas to shake under the piano's lid during the piano solo. "The Ghost of Lady Day" has a Spanish-sounding head, and at one point, Grenadier strummed his bass like a guitar to emphasize that. The title tune is reminiscent of composer Thelonious Monk and was played with great energy despite appearing late in a long performance. On alto flute again, Lloyd included a brief quote from composer Claude Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" in "Beyond Darkness." Thus concluded a splendid set, with everyone in the band at the top of their form.

Fred Frith: Drawing Sound

In their ongoing collaboration, "Drawing Sound," guitarist/composer/improviser Fred Frith generates soundscapes while visual artist Heike Liss creates her images in real-time (in this case, a combination of photographs, movies, and freehand drawings projected onto a screen above the musicians). Frith's electric guitar was joined by electric bassist Jason Hoopes, drummer Jordan Glenn, and a special Portuguese guest trumpeter, Susana Santos Silva. The music the group improvised was sometimes abstract but was generally given rhythmic support by Glenn's drumming, so there was a strong sense of flow. Frith played guitar the whole time—sometimes in standard playing position, sometimes resting on his lap—and produced a staggering variety of sounds. While picking, he could play beautiful melodies or do atonal skittering. He also struck the strings with a wire brush, put a tiny cymbal on them and hit it with a metal beater, slapped the fretboard rhythmically, dragged a cloth under the strings, played with an e-bow, and produced animal vocalizations with his mouth. The trumpeter contributed noises and melodies, and bassist Hoopes sometimes played melodically as well. The drums dropped out for a quiet ending of guitar, whistling and a bass drone. Since the artwork was projected over the musicians' heads, it seems likely that Liss took more inspiration from their playing than the other way around. But either way, combining shifting musical improvisation and immersive visuals made for a rich experience.

Friday, March 22

John Paul Jones

Bassist/keyboardist/mandolinist/composer John Paul Jones is undoubtedly best known for his tenure in Led Zeppelin, which he ruefully acknowledged several times during his performance. His solo concert opening was flamboyant: the show began with the sound of the theater's pipe organ, and then Jones was lifted out of the orchestra pit, playing a Baroque arrangement of the Led Zeppelin song "Your Time Is Gonna Come" from the band's self-titled debut album (Atlantic Records, 1969). He picked up a triple-neck electric mandolin (soprano, alto and bass) to play "Down to the River to Pray" from his second solo album The Thunderthief (Discipline Global Mobile, 2002), layering multiple parts by live looping. At this point he confessed to having technical difficulties, saying, "I have to apologize. I have never done anything quite like this before. In fact, I could have sworn I booked a band." Jones is not only a multi-talented musician but a charming performer as well. He picked up a bass guitar and mentioned encountering isolated bass part videos on the Internet. So he thought he would try one live and proceeded to play the "Ramble On" bass part from Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic Records, 1969) without the "less important" elements of vocals, guitar and drums. Moving to lap steel guitar (it folds in half for travel, and he told a funny story about that), he played some blues. Next, he moved back to the grand piano (with synthesizer bass pedals) for a version of Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You" from Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic Records, 1970). He thanked the Tennessee Theatre's house organist for orienting him to the instrument, commenting that he couldn't resist using it. Next came the acoustic part of the show, as he performed another Led Zeppelin song on an acoustic mandolin. His closer began with building up a loop of a Celtic-sounding tune using the triple mandolin. He then played piano with the mandolin loop, recording the piano and manipulating that loop. It was the most elaborate use of electronics in the set and a fascinating conclusion.

Fred Frith & Ikue Mori

Multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith has worked with laptop electronics specialist Ikue Mori many times, but on this occasion, she was also a newly minted MacArthur Genius recipient. Frith's stage setup did not include a guitar. He had a small koto-like toy stringed instrument and a box with several attached metal objects and contact microphones (aka "homemade instrument"). Frith mainly produced percussive sounds (using a metal beater or his hands) but sometimes employed long delays to build dense soundscapes. Mori may have been processing his sounds, but it was hard to hear a one-on-one relationship. The combination sounded like continuously shifting electronic music. The tracks on their duo album A Mountain Doesn't Know It's Tall (Intakt Records, 2021) are relatively short, but in this performance, they improvised for 18 minutes before the first pause. The following improvisation included a new sound from Frith: dropping a chain and rattling it around, along with more toy koto plunking for 12 minutes. Their final collaboration was short and featured fuzz koto stroked with both hands. Mori and Frith both looked surprised when it ended. Sometimes, improvisations just take as long as they take.

André 3000: New Blue Sun Live

Rapper André 3000 (of Outkast) made quite a splash when his debut solo album New Blue Sun (Epic Records, 2023) featured his flute playing in an instrumental context. For this live tour, his band included the core players on the album: percussionist Carlos Niño, guitarist Nate Mercereau, keyboardist Surya Botofasina and drummer Deantoni Parks. An announcement before the concert declared it a cellphone-free zone, encouraging everyone to be in the moment. The first improvisation opened with a rumbling drone and slide guitar textures. The flute entrance was accompanied by a brilliant blue laser shot through an onstage prism. It was a dramatic effect that reinforced the dominant blue light at this point, echoing the title. A switch to a larger flute was accompanied by a drum pulse and a sequence of other laser colors. André 3000 picked up an EWI (electronic wind instrument) playing vocal samples. So there was musical variety already, and it was not all flute all the time: later, he played xylophone for a while. The pause for announcements included an invitation for the audience to let loose: dance, vocalize or move around. They responded by whooping and singing, and at one point, a woman walked through the audience playing a small percussion instrument. During another break, André 3000 explained that rapping and playing flutes came from the same place. He told a story about being offered money while playing flute in a park. Then, he did a dramatic recitation, which turned out to be in an invented language. The performance was full of passion and invention, with a group of musicians who seemed to be on the same page.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society is an 18-piece big band known for innovative arranging and original compositions. "Dimaxion" from Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch Records, 2023) is a tribute to Buckminster Fuller. Its lovely dissonant waves demonstrate the power of the arrangement. A look at the reed section reveals part of the secret: they all double, but one player covered alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet and flute; another played flute, alto flute, piccolo, soprano saxophone and alto saxophone. Argue later credited the festival with sourcing many of these instruments since the musicians could take only one instrument on the plane. "Codebreaker" from the same album was dedicated to Alan Turing; it featured founding member Erica Feist on alto saxophone. A tune dedicated to Eric Prince (the man behind the Blackwater private army) was an anti-tribute featuring a dark metal rock riff played by electric guitar and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The longest composition of the set was "Tensile Curves," a commission from Argue's hometown big band. In response to Duke Ellington's 1937 composition "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," Argue opted to get slower as it goes instead of getting louder and softer like the original (due to its length and the limitations of brass instruments). For an encore, the group played "Last Waltz for Levon," a tribute to drummer Levon Helm and The Band. It employed acoustic guitar, featured an electric bass solo, and incorporated a clever quote from "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" from The Band (Capital Records, 1969).

Saturday, March 23

Fred Frith (Solo)

Saving the best for last, guitarist Fred Frith played a solo show using the Gibson ES-345 guitar that he has long been associated with. He began with it on his lap, laying a tin on the strings and bowing it, before rubbing the strings with it and employing a metal brush. After returning the guitar to the upright position he tried a fuzz pedal and asked for technical support for a volume problem. The rest of the set was a kaleidoscope of sounds, including more laptop percussive playing, backward melodies with bass doubler, and a pretty hymn-like chord progression with a solo on top. There was fast two-handed tapping, a fuzz solo over a loop, an e-bow with a metal slide, de-tuning, vocalizations, and dropping metal ball bearings onto the strings. Ritualistic whispering and moaning were followed by melancholy harmonies with a doubler. Frith concluded the set after about 40 minutes: enough time to tell a complete story. Frith has performed free improvisations like this for many years. He has developed a skill set that encompasses a wide musical range: atonality, noise, Western and non-Western rhythm, rock, New Music, conventional harmonies and melodies, and World Music. His solo performances are full of surprises: almost anything can happen, and often does.

Dave Holland New Quartet

Bassist/composer Dave Holland has led many groups over the years. His current one with saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Nasheet Waits is among the best, which is really saying something. Holland's bass riff opened his "A New Day" from Prism (Dare2, 2013). Davis played a great Fender Rhodes electric piano solo, reminiscent of Chick Corea's work on the instrument. Waits was pushing everyone along, as he did the whole concert: swinging all the way, even when his playing got busy. Shaw's tenor saxophone solo was followed by an excellent solo by the leader. Davis moved to the acoustic grand piano for the next tune, contributing a solo that went inside and outside effortlessly, which was followed by an exciting drum solo. They played an off-kilter, dissonant march, and the set ended with a trademark Holland repeated ostinato. Taking the microphone, he announced one last piece: Waits' "Between Nothingness and Infinity" a ballad from his album of the same name (Laborie Jazz, 2016)

Roger Eno

Composer/pianist Roger Eno is Brian Eno's younger brother; one of his best-known albums is their collaboration Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (EG Records, 1983). His concert featured music from his recent album The Skies, They Shift Like Clouds (Deutsche Grammophon, 2023). In his self-effacing introduction, he said that he would be presenting "an hour of quiet music, so you won't have to put up with it for long." "Morning Calls" was a morning meditation Eno plays on his Bechstein piano at home. Like the rest of the program, it was accompanied by a slow-dissolve slide show (which required a reset after Eno realized that the wrong image was on the screen). Eventually, his piano was joined by quiet arco strings, like an acoustic string pad. He introduced the members of the string quintet, later praising their ability to play so well with only three hours of rehearsal, and the first time seeing the music. "Above and Below" was a commission, played by the strings alone: harmonic washes with melodic fragments." Interlude No. 7" was the only good one in the series, according to Eno: it was faster music, with pizzicato double bass. "Death in Venice" (a working title) came from the uncanny experience of him haunting his younger self. "Through the Blue" was written when he heard that composerHarold Budd had died: they were good friends. For "The Turning Year" he brought out his daughter Cecily Eno. After correcting the strings' tempo, it was a Celtic-sounding song, and Cecily's performance confirmed his claim that she was not there due to nepotism. Another song followed with piano, joined by the strings. The concert was more than "quiet music," especially when Cecily was singing.


Shabaka Hutchings brought a new concept to the festival. In January 2023, he announced his intention to take an indefinite hiatus from playing the saxophone, explaining later in the year that his enthusiasm for the instrument had waned after years of intense touring. This also coincided with the end of his two bands, Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming. His new musical interests centered around the flute and related instruments. This show began with a low bamboo flute call, leading into a five-minute unaccompanied solo. Clearly, he was all-in on the flute. The following tune featured harp arpeggios and shakuhachi. When the full band entered it was still rubato: laptop, harp, vocalist, electric bass and drums. The vocalist was a key contributor to the sound, whether singing vocalise or melodies with lyrics: she had a Middle Eastern sensibility that often evoked the gazal. It was forty minutes into the set before a drumbeat happened. After introductions, a rhythmic approach continued, including a rhythmic vamp played by Shabaka on two flutes. After laptop flute samples he played the clarinet: a departure from the flute, but still not a return to his saxophone playing. The show concluded with a recorded speech—Haille Selassie, perhaps—and a pulse, if still not a strong beat. Shabaka's move from the saxophone to the flute involved much more than an instrument change: he has shifted from a jazz orientation to a New Age one. Fans of his earlier work could be forgiven for not even recognizing him now.

Sunday, March 23

Ches Smith's Laugh Ash

Percussionist/composer Ches Smith has a history of taking stylistic leaps from project to project. From the Haitian/jazz fusion of Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic Records, 2021) he went on to knotty contemporary jazz with Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic Records, 2022). Laugh Ash (Pyroclastic Records, 2024) is a large ensemble project. The group consists of a mix of players at the forefront of New York City's new music and jazz scenes: vocalist Shara Lunon, flutist Anna Webber, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist Jennifer Choi, violist Kyle Armbrust, cellist Michael Nicolas, and bassist/keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily. Smith played electronics, programming, vibes, drums, tubular bells, glockenspiel, timpani, tam-tam, and metal percussion and composed and arranged the music. They played all nine album tracks but stretched out on them. The opening piece began with electronics and vocal ululations from Lunon; then, Smith played along with the programmed percussion before switching to vibraphone. It quickly became apparent that Smith's programmed percussion was responsible for more than half of the sounds on the album: it should probably not be surprising that he programs drums the same way he plays them. Drums and Ismaily's bass led into a clarinet solo. "Sweatered Webs (Hey Mom)" started quietly: strings and reeds, then skittering electronics. The vocals were central: this was not a set of songs, but Lunon had a focal role. There was also space for an intense saxophone solo. As the set progressed, some sections sounded like loops but were composed. Just before the ending, there was music by the strings and horns that sounded like free improvisation. After introducing the band, Smith began "Exit Shivers" with a big crash, signaling the band's exit.


Joseph Kamaru (aka KMRU) is a Kenyan-born ambient electronic artist based in Berlin. His performance was part of the Blacktronica series, and electronica pioneer King Britt declared himself a big fan during his introduction. The music began with a soft drone, then a slow crescendo, pulsing, for twenty minutes. The second piece introduced a new pulsing drone with high harmonics. Vinyl noise and buzzing preceded a new crescendo: a soft layer sounded like distant voices. And so it went, concluding with a slow fade, with the final layers fading out last. The show mirrored his recordings, although perhaps louder than expected.

Jakob Bro

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro brought a trio to Regas Square (a new venue): double bassist Anders Christensen and drummer Brian Blade. After introducing the band, he played harmonics and chords with a long reverb, playing a melody over the soundscape before manipulating the loop. Christensen played an unaccompanied double bass solo, leading into a ballad with minimal electronics. A distorted riff led into drummer Paul Motian's "Drum Music," which this trio last played in 2022, so this performance was a kind of continuation. The rest of the set was more similar: rubato, with Bro's guitar including microlooper and a bit of slide playing. It was a live demonstration of the ECM sound of Bro's recordings.

Julian Lage & the Speak to Me Band

Guitarist Julian Lage led a quintet (later a sextet) featuring the music from his album Speak to Me (Blue Note Records, 2024). He was joined by double bassist Jorge Roeder, woodwind player Levon Henry, keyboardist Patrick Warren and drummer Rudy Royston. After the solo guitar intro "Tiburon," the band played the blues on "Hymnal/Two and One." "Serenade" had a gospel feel, and a drum fade-out. Pianist Kris Davis joined the band at this point for "Omission" and played the rest of the set. For most of it, Lage switched to acoustic guitar, beginning with a duet with her piano. A guitar riff brought in the rest of the band, and Davis played a great "inside" piano solo. Which was followed by her playing literally inside the piano—anything can happen with her—along with clarinet, arco double bass and acoustic guitar: like a chamber music interlude. "South Mountain" also made space for exciting saxophone and organ solos. The standard "Say It (Over and Over Again)" was played by the core trio. For "Northern Shuffle" Lage returned to electric guitar to end the show with a bang, including an unaccompanied piano solo that went into the abstract territory that Davis is often associated with. Lage's playing was almost larger than life, filling all the essential melodic and harmonic territory as if he were playing in a trio (no matter how many other players were backing him).

Last year's festival was plagued by constant Capacity Alerts: announcements that a venue was full and new entry would only be allowed if audience members left. This year, the organizers limited the number of passes, added some venues, and offered separate ticketing for the two special events. It seems to have helped, but there were still problems at smaller venues (even the Bijou Theatre on a few occasions, with its capacity of 700). It was probably unavoidable to some extent. At least the Capacity Alerts included helpful alternate suggestions.




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