Big Ears Festival’s 10th Birthday Requires Tough Choices


John Zorn will appear in a number of different configurations at this year’s Big Ears Festival.

(Photo: Courtesy of John Zorn)

Embrace leaving shows early … and maybe do some cross-training. That seems to be the usual message ahead of Knoxville, Tennessee’s annual Big Ears Festival, now in its 10th year. Founder Ashley Capps and his team usually pack so much music in a dozen venues throughout the main downtown artery in Knoxville that it’s hard to stay for a full show without feeling like you’re missing out on possibly three other amazing events.

For this year’s festival, which runs from March 30 to April 2, organizers are seemingly intent on putting previous iterations to shame. More than 22,000 folks came to the 2022 event, seeing 100 ticketed shows. As of this writing, organizers are still, somehow, adding concerts and other activities.

Rushing from venue to venue is a sport in itself — an eighth of a mile separates two of the main venues — and concert completists should get used to hearing only a handful of songs from some acts. But it’s all worth it. On a regular year, Big Ears is hands-down the most thought-provoking, artistically nourishing festival in the Southeast. (Some might broaden that regional caveat to the entire United States or, perhaps, the entire globe.) And for the festival’s 10th anniversary, Capps and co. have themselves embraced a “go big or go home” ethos.

Adding to the celebratory vibe of Big Ears’ 10th anniversary, John Zorn will be in town to mark his 70th birthday. As with last year, Zorn will appear in a number of different configurations. Starting at noon on April 1, listeners can catch Zorn, or hear his compositions, in nine shows across the final two days of the festival.

Big Ears jazz programming starts on Day One at 7:30 p.m. when Bill Frisell takes the stage with his trio (featuring bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston) and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. In the past, the symphony has partnered with such artists as Carla Bley and Shabaka Hutchings, who performed Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto in 2022. This year, Frisell will reprise arrangements by Michael Gibbs premiered in September for the Brussels Philharmonic’s “Jazz Meets Symphonic” series. Gibbs and Frisell previously teamed up with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2009 London Jazz Festival. John Fordham wrote in the Guardian at the time that “Gibbs created a sumptuous yet flexible orchestral setting for some of Frisell’s classic themes.”

In addition to performances, organizers in the last few days added a series of discussions with artists. You’ll find drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey in conversation with King Britt; journalist Ann Powers interviewing singer Cécile McLorin Salvant; and journalist Nate Chinen talking beats with Antonio Sanchez, Nate Smith and Makaya McCraven. Author Geoff Dyer will also be in town to read from his 1991 book But Beautiful.

It’s almost too much. Almost.

Here are just a handful of the jazz happenings — some requiring logistical finagling — on each day of the Big Ears festival. For the complete lineup, visit the festival’s website.

Thursday, March 30

8:30 p.m. Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry

Carmen Castaldi, Marilyn Crispell

Bijou Theatre

10:15 p.m. Exploding Star Orchestra

Rob Mazurek, Damon Locks, Tomeka Reid, Angelica Sanchez, Mary Halvorson, Craig Taborn, Chad Taylor, Gerald Cleaver

Knoxville Civic Auditorium

10:30 p.m. Vijay Iyer Trio

Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey

Bijou Theatre

Friday, March 31

12 p.m. New Future City Radio

Damon Locks, Rob Mazurek

The Standard

12:30 p.m. Gatos do Sul

Brian Marsella, Jon Irabagon, Jorge Roeder, Cyro Baptista, Tim Keiper, Felipe Hostins, Itali Kriss, John Lee

Bijou Theatre

1 p.m. Gregory Tardy

Old City PAC

3 p.m. Mary Halvorson

Amaryllis with Adam O’Farrill, Tomas Fujiwara, Jacob Garchik, Patricia Brennan, Nick Dunston

Followed by Belladonna with the Mivos Quartet

Bijou Theatre

8 p.m. Julian Lage Trio with Margaret Glaspy

Dave King, Jorge Roeder

The Point

10 p.m. Ned Rothenberg Crossings Quartet

Sylvie Courvoisier, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara

St. John’s Cathedral

11 p.m. Tarbaby ft. David Murray

Bijou Theatre

Saturday, April 1

4 p.m. Charles Lloyd Chapel Trio

Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan

Knoxville Civic Auditorium

4:30 p.m. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station

Gerald Cleaver, Ava Mendoza

The Standard

4:45 p.m. The Bad Plus

Reid Anderson, Dave King, Chris Speed, Ben Monder

Mill & Mine

5:15 p.m. Trio Imagination

Andrew Cyrille, Reggie Workman, David Virelles

The Point

7 p.m. Sun Ra Orchestra

Mill and Mine

Sunday, April 2

2:15 p.m. Wadada Leo Smith’s Purple Kikuyu

Ashley Walters, Pheeroan akLaff, Erika Dohi

Bijou Theatre

3:15 p.m. James Brandon Lewis Trio

Chris Hoffman, Max Jaffe

The Standard

4:15 p.m. Bill Frisell Four

Johnathan Blake, Gerald Clayton & Gregory Tardy

Bijou Theatre


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