LOCATION: various sites, Knoxville TN
SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival
Last year, I only dipped my toe in, testing the waters of the Big Ears Festival. Going for one day, I crammed in as much as possible and left overwhelmed. I was all in this year (though, circumstances necessitated I skip the opening night, Thursday). Arriving for the opening bell on Friday, I dove in, catching 10 performances in the first day alone. By the time I left, early Sunday evening, the final tally was up to 23. I set off for the long drive home, exhausted (in the best possible way).
Without trying to detail every experience, what follows are some of the highlights, as I saw them.
There was no better way to start than catching Roscoe Mitchell's Trio Five. Mitchell's presence and performance served testament to the advanced programming at Big Ears—their ability to attract artists of stature. The Art Ensemble of Chicago founder has remained, since the mid-60s a restless artist. These Trios, the first of which are documented on the ECM album, Bells for the South Side, are mature, searching works. The group was well-versed, each member, though some at least 2 generations Mitchell's junior, were patient and knew when to sit back or lean in. Roscoe's extended solos were searing—especially on soprano saxophone—filled with intervalic leaps and exploding, multi-phonic extended techniques.
Quite unintentionally, I ended up organizing my experience each day into loose groupings. Friday contained, by far, the most jazz-oriented of shows. Throughout the rest of the day, I saw the ebullient Cyro Baptista, Rocket Science (featuring Evan Parker and Peter Evans), as well as Jenny Scheinmann's Mayhem & Mischief (featuring Nels Cline). There was a powerhouse solo performance by Milford Graves—who's experiencing a coronation into elder statesman status of late. Luckily, The Thing's excoriating set made up for a rather staid and mildly disappointing turn by Medeski Martin & Wood.
Even still, I mixed it up, catching Ikue Mori, and ending the night with a sublime presentation by Wolfgang Voigt as Gas—previewing his new work, Rausch. Along the way I caught an Arto Lindsay set that was by far the best I have seen. His band—lead by the stalwart bassist, Melvin Gibbs— featured two drummers this go 'round, giving his samba inflected art rock witha . powerful, polyrhythmic punch.
Saturday ended up leaning more towards electronica acts. I started the day with an early morning performance by Kid Koala. I didn't know at the time how lucky I was to get in to this show. Over the course of the weekend, Kid Koala would lead a series of interactive performances based on his album Satellite: Music to Draw to, that ended up the biggest draw of the Fest—consistently at capacity, turning people away. In the small Square Room venue, each table was set up with custom mini-turntables along with a collection of color-coded 45s. During the performance, a light on the turntable would give you hued cues as to which record to put on, and a conductor would guide the audience to raise the volume, add effects or scratch.
While Kid Koala's music is not stylistically advanced, he excels at making live experiences that leave you feeling as if you've witnessed—even participated—in something truly special.
I went on from there to see a hypnotic all-oboe chamber piece composed by Michael Gordon, in an Art Museum and Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in a cathedral. Yuka Honda gave a rare solo performance and Laurel Halo drove her set well past its scheduled end-time, supported by experimental percussionist, Eli Keszler.
I ended the night at the Mill & the Mine, catching Four Tet with Kelly Lee Owens warming up. Four Tet has been on a years-long hot streak that's cemented him as one of the pivotal electricians of the early 21st century. He moves with dynamics in opposition to themselves. It has all the structure and release of classic techno but maintains the loose-limbed unpredictability of improvised music.
Kelly Lee Owens was a shocker, though. Her self-titled debut from last year (which I loved) was no preparation for her live set. Bits and pieces from the album showed up, but only as markers in her continuous slow build to a jaw-dropping display of hard acid house. If any one other than Four Tet was on after her, I would have called it a night then and there.
Sunday was like any Sunday after you've partied for two days in a row. I was weary and a bit hungover, musically. I caught what I could, Tyshawn Sorey's music is impressive and luminous. I'd be lying if I said I've found a way to fully connect with it, but I am no less than impressed by it.
I went on to see a set by the rock band Suuns, which I found a bit of a let-down. I'd say they reminded me of Joy Division, but really it's more like reminding me of Interpol reminding me of Joy Division. It never really lifted off—I eventually found a chair in a corner and dozed off a bit. Later I caught pianist Jason Moran with Ron Miles and Mary Halvorson. While Ron Miles has the longest resume of all three, it's Halvorson who has the buzz. I'd seen her play dozens of times while I lived in New York, so it was a treat to see her on stage again.
Despite my somewhat disengaged state, the improvised set on Sunday afternoon by Keiran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and Mats Gustafsson (of the Thing) was possibly the best of the entire weekend. Their musical spheres have little to do with each other—yet you could hear each one reaching to the other to find a common ground, in the moment. This was not their first meeting, but like their album with the sadly departed drummer, Steve Reid, I hope this set sees the light of day on record, as it was fucking stellar.
With one more show tucked in—a performance of Steve Reich's newer work, Quartet as performed by Nief-Norf—I was back on the road to North Carolina, overwhelmed (again). Already, I'm pleased to see the Big Ears 2019 lineup taking sahpe, as for the foreseeable future, I plan on making the Big Ears Festival an annual trek.
NOTES: Roscoe Mitchell; Cyro Baptista's Vira Locos; Ikue Mori; Rocket Science; Milford Graves; Arto Lindsay; Jenny Sheinman's Mischief & Mayhem; Medeski Martin & Wood; The Thing; Gas; Kid Koala; Rushes Ensemble performing Michael Gordon; Evan Parker Electro-acoustic Ensemble; Yuka Honda; Sonus Ensemble; Laurel Halo featuring Eli Keszler; Kelly Lee Owens; Four Tet; Tyshawn Sorey; Suuns; Kieren Hebden & Mats Gustafsson; Bangs; Nief Norf performing Steve Reich