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Live Review

Big Ears Festival 2022

Big Ears Festival 2022

Courtesy Mark Sullivan


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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 24-27, 2022

The Big Ears Festival found ways to continue virtually during the pandemic—most notably by sponsoring the Norwegian Digital Jazz Festival—but there is no substitute for the big glorious eclectic event that is the in-person festival. Past festivals have usually opened with a big kickoff event, often the first concert in the grand Tennessee Theatre. This year of renewal took a different tack, opting for a late afternoon free concert in the Tennessee Ampitheater (which was constructed during the 1982 World's Fair, and is now part of the World's Fair Park). The site is located far from the downtown venues normally used for the festival, but it was a gesture of inclusion for all of the Knoxville citizens who were unable to get tickets to the sold-out festival.

Thursday, March 24, 2022: Kronos Quartet & So Percussion / Dan Weiss Starebaby / Trefoil

Kronos Quartet & So Percussion

It's very Big Ears to feature two new music ensembles as the spotlight acts for the festival opening. This writer had highway issues that extended arrival beyond the opening of the show, but the Kronos string quartet's short set had many Kronos trademarks. They included a daring new work by composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon, a piece by the Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi, new arrangements of a pair of iconic American songs, and music from the daring film composer Clint Mansell. So Percussion presented "Amid The Noise," which included a substantial ensemble of singers and percussionists plus the Kronos Quartet. It was a kaleidoscopic blend of minimalism and world music, and was greeted enthusiastically by the large audience.

Dan Weiss Starebaby

Drummer/composer Dan Weiss describes the music of Starebaby as "metal meets jazz," and it was frequently as loud as that description implies. But there was subtlety as well, as one would expect from this bunch. Drummer/bandleader Weiss was joined by keyboardists Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, guitarist Ben Monder and electric bassist Trevor Dunn. They played selections from their two albums, Starebaby (Pi Recordings, 2018) and Natural Selection (Pi Recordings, 2020). Wild as the music sometimes got, the substantial use of sheet music onstage argued for a considerable compositional backbone. Monder (playing a Stratocaster) showed an unexpected shredding side of his playing, while also adding more usual textural parts and sometimes taking the lead melodic role. Taborn and Weiss played a memorable frenetic duet, and the entire band sometimes played Weiss' jagged rhythms like a big drum. The final tune was full of contrasts, as twisty electric bebop lines alternated with soundscape interludes (even Dunn got in on the act on the bass).

Trefoil: Ambrose Akinmusire, Kris Davis and Gerald Cleaver

This new trio combines the talents of three resourceful, unpredictable performers: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Gerald Cleaver. They performed in a new venue for the festival, the intimate Old City Performing Arts Center. The sound had plenty of good old-fashioned free improvisation, but with real dynamic and atmospheric range. At one point Davis played some of her trademark EBow piano (where the electromagnetic string vibrating guitar effect is applied to piano strings). During that sequence Cleaver stood and played a tiny hand-held cymbal. Elsewhere he demonstrated a remarkable ability to find a pulse in the music, unifying what might have otherwise sounded chaotic. Akinmusire was in full-throated voice most of the time, but during the finale he produced a delicate metallic percussive effect by tapping the trumpet bell with the mouthpiece. Great improvisers, surprising right to the end.

Friday, March 25, 2022: Craig Taborn Trio / Arooj Aftab / Kris Davis' Diatom Ribbons Trio / Sons of Kemet / Music of Ron Miles

Craig Taborn Trio

Technically this was a trio, but during the introductions Craig Taborn joked that his bandleader chops had suffered during the pandemic; a grouping this distinctive deserves a unique name. Taborn played piano and synthesizer, joined by cellist Tomeka Reid and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Ches Smith, who employed drums, gongs, tympani, mallet instruments and electronics. The opening was delicate and atmospheric, Taborn's synthesizer and light piano joined by cello harmonics and mallets/electronics. A driving rhythmic section brought Smith to the drum set. On a more conventional sounding jazz piece Reid took the bass role, playing an ostinato pattern pizzicato. It's not really in the bass register, but it does the job. A beater section found Smith playing both tympani and a large gong. The music was continuous until forty minutes into the set. The finale found the whole band coming to an abrupt stop, following conspicuous eye contact.

Arooj Aftab

Brooklyn-based Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab possesses a gorgeous voice, with a full command of Pakistani vocal styles, including the expressive use of melisma. Celtic harpist Maeve Gilchrist was her right hand, providing the backbone rhythms and harmonies. Many of the songs are based on Urdu ghazals, but "Last Night" came from a Rumi poem translated into English and set to a reggae beat. Her crack band included violinist Darian Donovan Thomas (who provided both melodic and atmospheric accompaniment) and bassist/synthesist Shahzad Ismaily.

Kris Davis' Diatom Ribbons Trio

Pianist/composer Kris Davis' album Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic Records, 2019) had ten contributing musicians. For this performance she trimmed the personnel down to three, as she had done before—herself on piano, turntablist Val Jeanty, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington—but the addition of electric bassist Trevor Dunn brought the count up to a quartet (all of them contributed to the original album as well). Jeanty used samples from interviews with Davis inspirations like Cecil Taylor and Olivier Messiaen for much of her source material. Her part played a surprisingly large role in the music, often functioning as the lead voice. The smaller ensemble actually gave the music greater focus than the original album.

Sons Of Kemet

British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings leads several bands. The Sons of Kemet made a memorable appearance at Big Ears 2019, and returned this year on the heels of the recent album Black to the Future (Impulse!, 2021). Hutchings was joined by tuba player Theon Cross and drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick. The drums began with a Bo Diddley beat, joined by the tenor sax, a burnout setup that recurred during the performance. The tuba entered, doubling the sax, creating a huge sound: as if All The Bass was there. It was a massive groove, one which sent many audience members into dancing mode, and almost everyone else into moving in time: something that jazz used to do, but has rarely done recently. After all of the anthemic dance grooves, Hutchings switched to a wood flute for a gentler, ballad-like section. Then a tuba solo went back into the groove, setting the pace for the rest of the set.

Music of Ron Miles

The late cornetist Ron Miles had been scheduled to appear at Big Ears this year. His recent band chose to present a program of his music in his absence: drummer Brian Blade, guitarist Bill Frisell (a longtime collaborator), pianist Jason Moran, and double bassist Thomas Morgan. The program opened with "I Am A Man" from the album of the same name (Yellowbird, 2017), also including music from Rainbow Sign (Blue Note Records, 2020), the other album this ensemble made together. The whole set was a beautiful memorial, with the band moving from one piece to another (with no announcements). Frisell played most of the heads, as the most horn-like instrument in the mix. They did not play enough tunes to cover both albums; perhaps some of them had cornet parts that were too prominent to perform without them. The set concluded with "March," Miles' last composition, which was sent to the band by his family. It was a beautiful, melancholy piece, which sounded like it had more to do with the month than the military rhythm. The group took their bows, and Brian Blade led the audience in a "Ron Miles" chant.

Saturday, March 26, 2022: Ches Smith's We All Break / John Zorn: Songs For Petra Haden / Nubya Garcia / Val Jeanty / Annette Peacock

Ches Smith's We All Break

Ches Smith's We All Break's album Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic Records, 2021) was one of the year's most highly regarded releases, a potent synthesis of traditional Haitian vodou music with jazz improvisation. For this performance Smith was able to reassemble the entire album personnel for a joyous celebration. The set began with an a capella vocal chant, followed by a rhythmic explosion from all four drummers. Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon played the first of many excellent solos, followed by pianist Matt Mitchell, whose playing is an integral part of the sound, but unfortunately was a bit low in the mix. Sirene Dantor Rene was the main vocalist, supported by a powerful mixed chorus of six (including Smith). Smith's co-composer Daniel Brevil also occasionally sang lead. A new instrumental theme gave double bassist Nick Dunston space for a rhythmic solo, followed by a high energy saxophone solo. Brevil then addressed the audience, giving an impassioned speech about the current state of Haiti, calling for love and unity. A tune that could be called a ballad was led by piano and arco double bass before being joined by the rest of the band. Smith made introductions, and announced the final piece would be "The Vulgar Cycle" (which also concluded the album).

John Zorn: Songs For Petra Haden

This has to be the most mainstream music John Zorn has ever produced, a guaranteed fail on a blindfold test. The songs were co-written over several years with lyrics by Jesse Harris, the composer of "Don't Know Why," performed by Norah Jones and for which Harris earned the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. The music tends towards Americana—almost as if Harris had written the music as well as the words—but also with a bit of the Middle Eastern flavor that Zorn employs sometimes. Vocalist Petra Haden was a wonder, effortlessly performing elaborate, serpentine vocal lines (as in "Nothing") as well as more conventional contemporary songbook material. And she was an utterly charming performer, using hand gestures when appropriate, and dancing to the guitar solos. Guitarist Julian Lage's playing was pretty inspirational; he was a consistently interesting soloist, no matter if the style was Middle Eastern or pop. The rest of the band from the album Songs for Petra (Tzadik Records, 2020) was on hand as well. Bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Kenny Wollesen were joined by music director and acoustic guitarist Harris, who also contributed vocals on "Taking My Time."

Nubya Garcia

British tenor saxophonist/composer Nubya Garcia continued the British jazz invasion at Big Ears (along with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings). Her set opened with an upbeat, reggae-influenced groove, one of several Afro-Caribbean nods to her parents' Guyanese and Trinidadian roots. Her rough cry recalled Gato Barbieri. The backing band included dub-like echo effects on the keyboards and one of the drums. She introduced her band, and encouraged the audience to express themselves by dancing, yelling encouragement, etc. She employed a filter effect on her saxophone on "Inner Game" from her debut album Source (Concord Jazz, 2020) then did some dancing of her own to the funky piano solo. "Stand With Each Other" was introduced with a call for unity, then began with just burning saxophone and drums before the entry of the full band and the soul-style melody, played like a vocal, followed by a virtuosic piano solo. "Lost Kingdoms" from her first EP Nubya's 5ive (Jazz re:freshed, 2017) opened with her unaccompanied saxophone, plus harmonizer. After a new, untitled tune the set ended with "Pace," which she explained meant to find moments of stillness and calm when you can.

Val Jeanty

Haitian-born drummer, turntablist and composer Val Jeanty made a strong impression as a member of Kris Davis' Diatom Ribbons ensemble earlier in the festival. Her solo show featured a light show that was at least partly reactive to the beats she made. She employed a great deal of hand electronic drum pad playing, emphasizing her percussionist side. She alternated that with scratching and sample manipulation, periodically introducing a new drum machine pattern. The text she was sampling from had a Haitian theme, including the country's history, slavery and vodou. It gave the concert a dramatic through line, informing and entertaining at the same time. She brought the music to an end with a bass line triggered from touch pads.

Annette Peacock

Avant-garde icon Annette Peacock's solo concert was a unique—and quirky—presentation of her music. Before she came onstage the audience was told that she wanted to maintain an intimate atmosphere—this in the Tennessee Theatre, the largest venue in the festival. Anyone taking photographs or video would be ejected from the hall, a threat that apparently did not have to be enforced. She came onstage wearing a long-billed ball cap which largely obscured her face, the stage bathed in low-level pink light, which had an effect like candlelight in the dark hall. After acknowledging the audience's kind applause, she launched into her set. She accompanied her vocals with a grand piano, string synthesizer, and occasional pre-recorded drums. The sound was similar to her album I Have No Feelings (Ironic Records, 1986), from which she performed the song "This Almost Spring." The piano parts tended to be single lines (often doubling the vocals) with the strings providing the lush harmonies. She went all the way back to her best known album I'm The One (RCA, 1972; Ironic Records, 2010) for "Seven Days," the most conventional love song in the set. The set ended on the repeated line "Nothing is pain" from her song "Behind The Beat" from 31:31 (Ironic Records, 2005). After she stopped singing and playing the lyrics went on via a recording as she walked off stage. The recording stopped, and the show was over. No spotlights, no bows. Hard to even positively identify the performer if not seated close to the stage. Definitely a performance as enigmatic as the music.

Sunday, March 27, 2022: Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet / Evan Ziporyn / Bang On A Can All-Stars / John Zorn: New Electric Masada

Miguel Zenón & Spektral Quartet

Alto saxophonist/composer Miguel Zenon drew upon his Puerto Rican heritage for a set of music with the string quartet Spektral Quarter, recorded on the album Yo Soy la Tradición (Miel Music, 2018). It is true chamber music, with the quartet taking an active role rather than simply playing the string pad accompaniment common to many "jazz plus strings" projects. Zenón introduced many of the pieces, describing the cultural setting that inspired them. "Yumac" comes from the town of Camuy (spelled backwards in the title) where the Jibaro musical style was born. It featured a terrific unaccompanied solo by first violinist Clara Lyon, which turned into a duet with the saxophone before the whole group joined in for the conclusion. "Viejo" takes its name from Aguinaldo Viejo, a genre of Jíbaro believed to be the tradition's oldest example. The theme was played by cellist Russell Rolen, and later the scoring included the striking sound of an arco first violin accompanied by pizzicato playing by the rest of the quartet. A most enjoyable start to the day.

Evan Zaporyn

Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn joked that he decided what the pandemic-weary world needed was multipart clarinet arrangements of American popular songs, as documented on Pop Channel (Islandia Music, 2022). This show was their first public performance. He opened with the most recent song, the 2010 McFabulous tune "I Live Above the Hobby Shop," employing b-flat soprano clarinet and bass clarinet, as he did throughout the set. The other pop tunes were a varied lot from the late '60s through the '70s. "Shining Star"/"That's the Way of the World" (Earth, Wind & Fire); "Woodstock" (the original Joni Mitchell version); "Along Came Mary" (The Association); "Your Gold Teeth II" (Steely Dan); "Uncle Albert" (Paul McCartney) and a few others. Ziporyn said that he was trying to bring out what he loved about these songs, and indeed there was no trace of satire; he was very respectful of the vocal melodies. The middle of the recital featured something quite different: the first performance in over 50 years of Philip Glass' "Best Out of Three" for three clarinets. Composed in 1968, it was believed lost until it turned up in his archives. It forms a missing link between his early period and his breakout pieces "Music in Fifths" (1969) and "Music in Contrary Motion" (1969) that led to "Music in Twelve Parts" (1971-1974). Saying "minimalism is a young man's game," Ziporyn added a strap to his soprano clarinet before beginning. The piece was a fascinating twelve-minute glimpse into the past, and still fresh today. The whole program was a delight.

Bang On A Can All-Stars

This performance of Terry Riley's Autodreamographical Tales (Cantaloupe Music, 2022) was to have featured the composer as the vocalist/narrator, but he was held up in Japan. He appointed All-Stars guitarist Mark Stewart as his surrogate, and the show went on. The songs are based on Riley's dream journals, and they are a wild ride, with the stories set in a variety of musical styles. They range from free jazz to pop to blues to rock to classical, all capably handled by a band that seems to be capable of playing anything. "Long Bus Ride" is more of a touring musician's nightmare. After a long bus ride (including members of Riley's band that he does not remember), the musicians are faced with hours of electronic equipment setup. They send the audience away to return later: and the performance never takes place! "Zucchini" takes place in London. Riley is attending an orchestral rehearsal of a piece of his entitled "Zucchini ," which he does not remember composing. The concert closed with two similar songs that are not part of the Tales. "Cannabis" is somewhat self-explanatory, but "Science Fiction" is an extended exercise in gibberish. Having heard the recorded version with Riley, this writer can attest to Stewart's excellent job as stand-in. With eyes closed one might not be able to tell the difference.

John Zorn: New Electric Masada

Saxophonist/composer John Zorn's work was featured in several concerts during the festival (he took over the Bijou Theater for the entire final day). His last concert of the festival was an all-star nonet with guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, organist John Medeski, pianist Brian Marsella, electric bassist Trevor Dunn, drummers Kenny Wollesen and Ches Smith, percussionist Kenny Grohowski, and Zorn himself played alto saxophone and conducted. The significance of his conducting was immediately apparent in the dramatic cued entrances of different sections of the band. Zorn cued accents throughout the performance, so there was no question about his authorship. At the same time, the players had considerable freedom. A guitar feature found both players working with Zorn's composed material, while making personal contributions at the same time. Dunn's electric bass solo was accompanied by only drums at first, then the guitars. At one point Zorn cued a huge band freakout crescendo and turned to the audience with a grin, as if saying "what do you think?" The response was huge applause, so everyone seemed to be on the same page. Over the course of the set each of the musicians got solo space as well as a significant ensemble role. They were all clearly engaged in the collective process, making the set a fine conclusion to Zorn's festival concerts.

Epilogue: Ellen Reid Soundwalk

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and sound artist Ellen Reid created a Big Ears-sponsored environmental sound installation at Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center which runs throughout 2022. It requires an app download which then provides sounds via GPS as the listener walks through the nature center. The music was recorded by Reid's ensemble (which also played it in concert during the festival) as well as the Kronos Quartet. As one walks through the space the silence is broken by sounds like a sudden harp arpeggio, or a string quartet, or a mandolin ensemble. The Nature Center's parking lot was under construction when I visited, but I was delighted to find that the Quarry where I had to park had its own musical cue, which the app identified as "Quarry Music."

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