Year after year, Prof. Rosen makes his pilgrimage to Knoxville to report back to BLURT on what just might be the best music festival on the entire freakin’ planet. This year included Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, Mercury Rev, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago—and much, much more, of all stripes, genres, and inclinations, spread across 150 performances and 50 additional free events. Want more? Check outRosen’s 2014 report, as well as 2015, not to mention 2016 and 2017 and 2018.
BY STEVEN ROSEN / PHOTOS BY MINDY ROSEN
Is there anybody from Idaho or Nebraska reading this? If so, please clear you calendars now for March 2020. You’ll need to go to Knoxville, Tenn. for a long weekend at the Big Ears Festival. And you will be treated as an honored guest.
That’s because, at the 2019 Big Ears, which occurred March 21-24, those two states were the last holdouts. There were attendees from every other one, as well as from 21 countries. That was one sign of growth for the festival, which occurs at multiple indoor venues and was started in 2009. It skipped three years (2011-13), but has been growing since becoming a non-profit organization in 2016. This year, it held 150 concerts and some 50 free events, and venues for the most part were filled with attendees. As were the streets of downtown Knoxville.
That’s all quite remarkable, given that the festival resolutely embraces the musical avant-garde. As its founder, Ashley Capps, said in a written statement contained in the distributed program, Big Ears is “an invitation to explore the depth and breadth of the world of music in its many rich and evocative manifestations, beyond the traditional genres, boxes and boundaries that too often create divisions between music and audiences.”
That program also included a quotation from Gustav Mahler that “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” But don’t let the Mahler reference fool you into thinking this year’s Big Ears was primarily for fans of “settled” classical music — that which is already accepted as masterful.
There was, rather, much new contemporary classical music — such as violinist Kim Kashkashian, playing with pianist Robert Levin at the luxuriously restored Tennessee Theatre, presenting a brand-new work by octogenarian composer John Harris Harbison. It was a six-part rumination on mortality that was grave, solemn and questioning, yet also exciting and determinedly proud of life, even if it always ends sadly.
Also at the Tennessee was a classical piece, by rising new music composer (and The National guitarist) Bryce Dessner, featuring stirring music for the Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble plus tenor Isaiah Robinson and mezzosoprano Alicia Hall Moran to sing. Called Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), it was about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Images of his work were projected while the singers performed the libretto (lyrics) by playwright Korde Arrington Tuttle.
But there was rock, too. Mercury Rev, playing at the Mill & Mine club for a late-night show, did a revved-up show featuring Jonathan Donahue’s happily, joyful singing of such dreamy, melancholy, grandeur-drench band classics as “Tonite It Shows,” “Central Park East,” “Opus 40” and “People Are So Unpredictable.” He also did a killer cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” as the band provided a powerful wave of orchestral-like sound behind him.
Mercury Rev also sponsored a late-night screening with live score at the historic Bijou Theatre of the eerie early-1960s thriller Carnival of Souls, with such guest musicians as Steve Shelley, Ben Neill, Tim Berne and Mimi Goese. I thank them for presenting this wonderful movie in an optimum setting, but I’d have preferred to see it with its dialogue, which had been dropped out for the music. It’s such a strong movie that one wants to hear the actors talk (or scream).
Richard Thompson also played the Bijou with a project called Killed in Action, featuring short songs based on extracts from letters and diaries of World War I soldiers, his acoustic guitar and low, yearning voice accompanied by the Knoxville Symphony Strings. Partially funded by Great Britain’s WWI Centenary Art Commissions, it debuted in 2016 at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge and has had a fairly low profile ever since. The Big Ears audience was keenly appreciative of Thompson’s performance and the string section’s arrangements, but the concert most came alive after this was finished and Thompson played other songs with the string section — including “Shenandoah,” his own “The Great Valerio,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and especially Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.”
Also at the Bijou, guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell, working with the band The Mesmerists, played a beseeching score to accompany films by avant-gardist Bill Morrison, who puts together abstracted narratives by reclaiming and re-editing found footage, often in a visible state of decay. Morrison’s finished work plays like missives from an old, weird America — or a pre-modern world — and Frisell’s music perfectly caught that mood. One short film in particular — called The Mesmerist and re-edited by Morrison from a deteriorated nitrate print of a 1926 film called The Bells — was unforgettable. It’s the tale of an innkeeper who kills a Polish Jew for his valuables, then puts the body in a fiery outdoor furnace or fire pit. But he’s later confronted by a vision of the man. This played like a chilling precursor of the Holocaust; the film’s damaged condition a metaphor for the post-Holocaust world.
Jazz in all its forms was on display at Big Ears. The group Columbia Icefield, featuring trumpeter Nate Wooley, drummer/vocalist Ryan Sawyer, guitarist Mary Halvorson and inventive pedal steel player Susan Alcorn (the latter two have become Big Ears favorites in recent years) played songs from a new album inspired by Wooley’s revelatory trip to see the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The concert, before a standing audience at The Standard club (I had to keep jumping up and moving around to see) featured music that intelligently, artfully captured Wooley’s awe at the landscape — compositions frequently were brought to life by short, rippling solos by the members. The show was a standout; the players forces to be watched in the future.
The portentously named British trio The Comet Is Coming made its debut at a packed Mill & Mine, where it filled the cavernous space with the strong, loud and almost-literally uplifting saxophone playing of Shabaka Hutchings. There were overtones in his tirelessly fierce playing of the Free Jazz legend Albert Ayler, as well as the contemporary Kamasi Washington. But I also heard in his playing something of the full-bodied, funky and danceable melodies of the great Manu Dibango of “Soul Makossa” fame. I would have liked Comet better with less of the super-heavy, Keith Emerson-like keyboard playing of Dan Leavers, an important part of the group’s fusion-y mix. (Another band featuring Hutchings, Sons of Kemet, also played Big Ears.)
The German jazz/cabaret singer Theo Bleckmann did two shows at the Bijou — “Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush” and ‘Berlin — Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile.” He’s a phenomenal vocal stylist — imitating the famous opening keyboard riff of “Running Up That Hill,” then using his own natural voice to give intense meaning to the words. His show of German songs was also rewarding, as he prefaced each song with stories or lyric translations, explaining that the love song “Lili Marlene” was a hit throughout Europe during World War II even though Germany was at war with countries where it was played. His version of Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” was especially effective — its best-known recordings are by women, but he made it his own.
Big Ears this year was celebrating the 50th anniversary of ECM Records (primarily known for its jazz releases, but the label’s name is actually short for Edition of Contemporary Music and its releases have covered other types of music) and there were panel discussions as well as performances by such ECM artists an Bleckmann, Wadada Leo Smith, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Meredith Monk.
All this led to the festival’s climactic conclusion, a closing-night concert at the Tennessee Theatre by ECM’s Art Ensemble of Chicago, the great avant-jazz group on its own 50th anniversary tour, dedicated to deceased members Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut and their lasting contributions to “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future.”
For this concert, the Art Ensemble was a true large ensemble — 16 people counting singer Camae Ayewa and poet Moor Mother. Every second of each person’s contribution to the program was thrilling, but the two remaining original members — saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye — were justifiably first among equals.
I have witnessed few moments at the seven Big Ears I have attended as thrilling as when Mitchell, who had mostly been a quiet, reserved presence through the show, took a long, sustained, technically dazzling soprano sax lead toward the end, going on and on as others joined in or withdrew. After awhile, he stood up and kept playing with astonishing speed and stamina, the great bandleader compressing a whole concert’s worth of solo playing into this one long stand.
The applause and cheers at the end of this show were so rousing and sincere, and the overall experience sent the large crowd away with a peak experience … and probably already thinking about next year.