Collaborative Spirit Prevails at Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival


Marc Ribot (left) and Joe Henry perform at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 1. (Photo: Bill Foster/Big Ears Festival)

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One of the hallmarks of the annual Big Ears Festival, held each spring in Knoxville, Tennessee, is collaboration. This year’s edition, which ran from March 31–April 2 at a cluster of venues both large and small near the city’s downtown area, was no exception.

Guitarist Marc Ribot provided typically clangorous acoustic accompaniment to the painterly, soulful singing of Joe Henry—the pair worked together famously on the Allen Toussaint album The Bright Mississippi (produced by the latter)—while harp experimentalist Zeena Parkins teamed up with drummer Tony Buck of the Necks for a first-time encounter, generating dissonant sparks and high-octane rhythmic collisions.

Elsewhere, saxophonist and Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen blew wild over the intuitive techno grooves of Chicago producer Hieroglyphic Being and the venerable Hoboken indie rock band Yo La Tengo, who were augmented by an eclectic crew that included the Arkestra’s Danny Thompson, harpist Mary Lattimore, Necks keyboardist Chris Abrahams and composer and National guitarist Bryce Dessner.

A concert by the venerable Chicago new music group eighth blackbird featured help from folks as disparate as minimalist pioneer Philip Glass and indie rock singer Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy).

One of the most anticipated match-ups didn’t happen as planned. Health problems forced the influential violin experimenter Tony Conrad to withdraw from the re-creation of Outside The Dream Syndicate, his singular 1972 recording with the notorious krautrock band Faust. Sadly, after a long battle with prostate cancer, Conrad passed away on April 9 at the age of 76.

Laurie Anderson—who was busy throughout Big Ears with various performances—gamely filled in on amplified viola, although for most of the performance she hid from the audience at the packed industrial space called the Standard, working behind a stack of amplifiers.

Still, her ragged arco figures provided a crucial complement to the just intonation drone produced by three of Conrad’s colleagues—bassists Liz Payne and Frank Meadows and violinist Sally Morgan. Faust co-founders Jean-Herv&eacute P&eacuteron (guitar) and Zappi W. Diermaier (percussion) banged out the hypnotic, metronomic groove featured on the original recording with manic intensity and unrelenting drive.

Performed at the sort of crushing volume that brings the psychoacoustic effects of just intonation to full impact, the Faust members inhabited the ultra-minimal two-note groove with monomaniac glee—particularly Diermaier, who beat a tom-tom with a pair of crude drumsticks with savage, ritualistic fervor—while the strings unleashed a single ringing, extended drone, marbled as it was with striated resonance. The set produced a glorious trance, and it provided a poignant, prescient homage to Conrad’s influential practice.

One of the most astonishing and powerful sets of the weekend was free from collaboration of any sort, as guitarist Mary Halvorson gave a knockout solo performance at the Square Room, revisiting material from her wonderful 2015 album Meltframe (Firehouse 12).

In a sense, that album and the Big Ears set offered Halvorson’s take on jazz standards, but her practice is far more personalized and idiosyncratic than the notion suggests, mixing pieces by storied figures like Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman with material by contemporaries such as Chris Lightcap and Tomas Fujiwara.

In each case, Halvorson deftly reinvented the compositions for her own personality. The Knoxville performance made it clear that she has seriously engaged with the material at length since cutting the record, digging deeper into each piece and locating new details and subtle twists.

Her set opened with a raw take on Coleman’s aptly titled “Sadness,” a lesser-known tune from Town Hall, 1962, with the guitarist inventively playing the stormy, meditative arco bass lines of David Izenzon with harmonically ambiguous slide figures before introducing the keening melody.

Her version of Annette Peacock’s “Blood” toggled between rapid-fire, single-note flurries and a patient, heart-melting statement of the chorus—her undulating articulation marked by vulnerability far removed from the gutsy, virtuosic opening section.

That same heavy vibrato seeped into Halvorson’s reading of “Cheshire Hotel,” a spry, folksy tune by the contemporary French guitarist Noël Akchoté.

Halvorson also wildly remade “Cascades,” a fiercely swinging track from Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues And The Abstract Truth, with tonally-biting, metallic runs, adapting the buoyant horn charts with lacerating, proggy lines that occasionally seemed on the brink of erupting into waves of feedback.

The most affecting numbers, however, were also the most delicate. Her interpretations of Ellington’s “Solitude” and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg’s “Weer Is Een Dag Voorbij” (the only piece from her set that didn’t appear on Meltframe) were achingly beautiful, articulated with an atmospheric warmth that conveyed a mixture of fragility and splendor.

(Note: To read a classic interview with Ornette Coleman from a 1960 issue of DownBeat, click here.)

—Peter Margasak

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