Once again Prof. Rosen makes his pilgrimage to Knoxville. Check out his 2014 report, as well as 2015, not to mention 2016 and 2017. We sense a trend here. Warning: musical hallucinations ahead. (Pictured above: Steve Gunn)
BY STEVEN ROSEN
One of my favorite events at the annual Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. — and I’ve now gone to five of the six — is the Kick Off Event. I’ve come to enjoy the way that festival head Ashley Capps and Mayor Madeline Rogero always work a Captain Beefheart reference into their opening remarks. Capps, whose AC Entertainment founded Tennessee’s famous Bonnaroo festival, once operated a Knoxville venue called Ella Guru’s, named after a track on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album. Rogero was a frequent patron.
Rogero didn’t disappoint when welcoming attendees to Big Ears 2018, held March 22-25. After first noting she had been given a note in big capitol letters that said “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Capps, she said she would do it anyway — a jokey reference to some idiot thing, one of too many to remember clearly for more than a day or two, that President Trump had done that week. And then she congratulated “our Spotlight Kid, Ashley Capps,” working in the title of Beefheart’s sixth album, a 1972 release.
In last year’s Big Ears coverage, I mentioned how I thought Capps, for all his love of the rock radicalism embodied by the late Beefheart’s work, now seemed more attuned to the more carefully expressed intellectual experimentalism of an American New Music composer like Frederic Rzewski, who at age 78 appeared at Big Ears 2017 to perform on piano his 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” a political composition based on a Chilean folk song. Capps wrote to correct me: He was attuned to both equally — he had wide tastes. “Big ears,” so to speak.
Fair enough. But after attending much of this year’s festival’s four days, I might list some additional musical interests for Capps — the free jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and also Appalachian folk music.
The latter was not a retreat into traditionalism or regionalism, certainly not when it was best embodied by the duo of Anna & Elizabeth, who were celebrating the pending release of their first “major label” record, The Invisible Comes to Us on Smithsonian Folkways Records. If that doesn’t seem like a major contemporary label to you, but rather a historical throwback, you’re not on the same wavelength as Anna Roberts-Gevalt. “That’s the nerdy-est, best-est label to be on if you’re like us, if you like the old weird stuff,” she told a hushed, enraptured audience of several hundred on Friday afternoon at the beautiful St. John’s Cathedral, one of Big Ears’ many venues.
She and Elizabeth LaPrelle search for and revive older, forgotten Appalachian ballads, often ones by women. And at the concert, they sang such songs as Margaret Shipman’s “Here in the Vineyard” and Victoria Morris’ “John of Hazelgreen” with soulful purity. But there’s also an element of the art project, of experimentalism, in their work that is groundbreaking. Besides the stringed instruments they both play, LaPrelle also uses a self-made “crankie” to project mysterious silhouetted images and sometimes woodcuts, as visual accompaniment. She also uses a small, harmonium-like shruti box to inject a drone into their sound.
They ended their show in an unexpected way, walking down a church aisle to be among the audience and start singing a simple but darkly evocative refrain: “I don’t want to die in the storm/Let the wind blow east/Let the wind blow west/Lord, I don’t want to die in the storm.” Asking the crowd to join in, people unselfconsciously responded — transporting themselves, in the process, into the minds and fears of someone in the past, perhaps isolated in an Appalachian winter, struggling to survive another day. It was a theatrical yet completely, unpretentiously natural ending, and marked Anna & Elizabeth as artists to watch.
As for the more traditional Appalachian music events that Big Ears programmed, such as the Square Dance and Fiddler’s Convention presentations at Knoxville’s outdoor Market Square, I didn’t hear much discussion of them. It’s possible the chilly, rainy weather cut down on participation, but it’s more possible that Big Ears attendees go there for something else. With such a full slate of avant-garde artists, especially those with roots in Free Jazz, who has time to square dance?
There were the jazz elders, the giants of progressivism, and all of them gave terrific performances. The 76-year-old drummer/percussionist Milford Graves, sometimes holding his sticks in such an off-handed, almost-sideways manner that one had to wonder if he would be able to strike a direct hit on his instrument. (He could.) He played with energy, precision, propulsion and — rare for drummers — melodicism during his Saturday afternoon show at the filled-to-capacity Bijou Theatre. He got so worked up he sometimes seemed to be talking to his instruments. He was matched by pianist Jason Moran, who was pushed by his older partner to play with the kind of commanding, demanding, exciting sense of purpose that recalled (the now late) Cecil Taylor. The work seemed improvised, with the two responding to each other and enjoying what they were creating.
Graves was followed at the Bijou by Roscoe Mitchell, one of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s founders, currently enjoying the success of one of his best-received albums, Bells for the South Side. With a large ensemble (playing as a set of trios), he worked through music that had a quietly alluringly dissonant artfulness (a spacey, fusion-y fluttering reminiscent of Miles Davis’ 1970s-work, only without the rock overtones). He played soprano, sopranino, alto and bass saxophones, sometimes letting James Fei also join in with his own dynamic sax work. Craig Taborn’s keyboard work was blistering, and the young Tyshawn Sorey contributed blurringly fast drum work and some piano. The concert, like the album, built to a version of Art Ensemble’s cathartic “Odwala” that was turned to 11, as Spinal Tap’s Nigel might say. You could see audience members in total thrall, unable to sit still as if they wanted to testify to a higher power. (Sorey, by the way, is a recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and on early Sunday afternoon played a set with his own trio that had a very classical New Music feel.)
Also notable among the jazz performers was the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, part John Cage and part Spike Jones, who with his Banquet of the Spirits group could get engaging sounds from any object that came near him. You watched him and his group and wondered, “Is he playing that through his nose?” or “Is that a swimming-pool noodle he’s waving around?” His musical interests are omnivorous, and it’s as much a pleasure to hear what he plays as to watch how he makes his sounds and beats.
Evan Parker, the prolific, 74-year-old British saxophonist who has recorded with Anthony Braxton, Peter Brotzmann, Steve Lacey and Roscoe Mitchell, was indefatigable during a Friday solo show at St. John’s Cathedral. (Free Jazz is such a good use for a historic church.) And, in one of Big Ears’ loveliest surprises, the 78-year-old Jon Gibson and a young band performed his 1973 masterpiece Visitations in its entirety at the same church on Friday night. It was originally released on Philip Glass’ label because Gibson, a flutist and saxophonist, was a member of Glass’ ensemble. It reminded me of Paul Horn’s Inside in its pristine, isolated and meditative respect for sonic clarity, but also had such modern touches as synthesizer and accompanying video imagery.
While I wasn’t able to see the full late-Friday night set by The Thing, a squealing, rocketing Scandinavian trio that plays Free Jazz as if it was scronky rock ‘n’ roll (Albert Ayler meets MC5), what I did catch was enough for me to want them for my next dance party. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson has a friendly, celebratory relationship with the audience that reminds me of Jon Langford — he’s a guy who so obviously gets off on what he’s doing that he spreads joy all around him.
I also saw some uneasily categorized acts. A couple were disappointing: Norwegian singer Jenny Hval’s vocals got lost amid the conceptual theatrics of her Friday presentation at the Bijou; neither the singing nor the playing sounded very good at the highly anticipated Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda: The Ashram Experience concert on Saturday at St. John’s Cathedral.
But others really stood out: Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn clearly can play anything (she accompanied Anna & Elizabeth at their concert), and her solo show at The Standard on Thursday night was a tour de force. She confidently played compositions by Astor Piazzollo, French composer Olivier Messiaen (the solemn and sacred “And I await the resurrection of the dead”) and her own beautiful work-in-progress that she had yet to name. Alcorn, herself, with her smile and poetically anecdotal introductions to her music, communicated a kind of beatitude. Her pedal steel was her church organ.
Jenny Scheinman (above) plays both violin and fiddle, by which I mean she plays contemporary jazz with Bill Frisell, Nels Cline and others, and she makes Americana albums, writing reasonably conventionally structured songs that she sings while accompanying herself in the folk tradition.
She had a perfect project for her latter persona with Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, which she presented at the Bijou on Saturday afternoon and for which she was accompanied by Robbie Fulks on guitar and banjo and Robbie Gjersoe on guitars. This is a revelatory project: Duke University commissioned her to create accompanying live music for short silent films that H. Lee Waters shot from 1936-1942 in Kannapolis, North Carolina and nearby towns. The footage is a valuable document of everyday life — for the town’s blacks and whites, men and women, adults and children — during some tough years. That’s valuable enough, but Waters also experimented with film technique, giving the end result an avant-garde dimension.
Lyrically, Scheinman’s accompanying songs dwelled on the subject of anti-nostalgia; they sometimes seemed to be commenting on our act of watching rather than on what we saw. I’m not sure the film needed that extra conceptual layer, but her melodies were striking. Fulks’ solo number, “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” from his album Gone Away Backwards, was especially strong.
The Saturday night concert at the historic Tennessee Theater (above), celebrating its 90th year and so spectacular in scale that it’s the state’s official theater, is the marquee time-slot for Big Ears. This year, that slot was occupied by Diamanda Galas, a daring choice.
Dressed in black, with long black hair and the deepest, gravest voice imaginable, she is a Goth for the ages, but she’s also something more. Whereas “Goth” was a music trend of the New Wave 1980s, an atmospherically gloomy attitude that was a form of youthful romanticism, Galas treated it as a worldview of life-and-death urgency. Her severe singing became a requiem for those lost to AIDS, a cry to not forget.
Now, at age 62 and playing the piano solo before a reasonably large crowd in the 1,600-seat theater, she chose and then vocally deconstructed her songs to make sure listeners got the full gravitas of their sadness, fear, loss, despair. Yet the show was not a downer — her artful control, her knack for heightening a song’s inherent tension, is too enthralling. She’s a radical interpreter of pop music. She began with the traditional country song, “Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” popularized by Hank Williams (who recorded it as Luke the Drifter). She followed with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” virtually stripped of the familiar melody in order to emphasize the stark desperation inherent in the title. She later did Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” perfect for her oeuvre.
But the highlight was a long, moaning and hypnotic version of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death,” drawn out like Patty Waters’ jazz vocals of the 1960s. To paraphrase one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous lines, Galas stokes the grief-making machinery of the popular song. She’s a national treasure, speaking truth to that popularity.
My Saturday night ended late — at the Bijou, the Rova saxophone quartet, along with a small orchestra of additional players including percussionist Baptiste, guitarist Cline, rockin’ synthesizer/electronics player Yuka Honda and more, began their “electric” version of John Coltrane’s 1966 cosmic Free Jazz classic Ascension at midnight and didn’t end until close to 1:30 a.m. It was a “reimaging” of the work — players were free to riff on the work in-between the beginning and end. The most remarkable thing about this, aside from the pure space-is-the-place otherworldliness of the untethered work, was the way you could hear every player, despite the volume. The mix was perfect.
After it was over, I walked back to my hotel and found a well-dressed older man in the lobby, clutching two fluff dogs — one in each arm — to his chest. I thought I was hallucinating, after that Rova’s set. I still think I might have been.
Photos courtesy of Cora Edwards, Eli Johnson, LK Feliu, Andy Vinson. (Individual credits can be viewed in the photo titles.)