Spirited Big Ears Festival Embraces Experimental Outlook

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​Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire performs with the trio Trefoil at this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

(Photo: Billie Wheeler)

During the opening concert of this year’s Big Ears Festival, a train roared by just as the Kronos Quartet leaned into Michael Gordon’s vigorous “The Sad Park,” prompting violinist David Harrington to comment, “That train was great!”

Such a cheerful embrace of the accidental and the ambient was much in the spirit of John Cage, whose experimental outlook informed much of Big Ears, as did the improvisatory spirit of jazz, summed up nicely at a concert by pianist Jason Moran, who thanked the crowd for “coming out to hear music where you don’t know how it ends.”

Taking a chance is what Big Ears is all about, and fans were hungry for it. Having been frustrated by COVID-induced cancellations for two years running, record crowds flocked back to the quaint college town of Knoxville, Tennessee, for the expanded 2022 festival, which ran March 24–27. Over four days in 15 venues, including two classic vintage theaters and a pair of acoustically gorgeous churches, the festival presented more than 150 concerts, conversations and films, embracing a genre-blind esthetic that recalled the New Music America festivals of the 1990s. Where else could you experience in just one day the celestial vocals of Pakistani singer (now Grammy winner) Arooj Aftab, an intimate gallery recital and revealing Q&A by featured artist John Zorn, an immaculate greatest hits show by performance artist/vocalist Meredith Monk and a break-your-heart-beautiful tribute to recently deceased Denver cornetist Ron Miles by guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Thomas Morgan?

Even amid such wild diversity, themes emerged. One that stood out was that music need not be abrasive or dissonant to qualify as avant-garde. Some of the most engaging concerts featured string quartets with beautiful blends, not just Kronos, but New York’s Attaca, which accompanied another 2022 Grammy winner, vocalist and composer Caroline Shaw, in heavenly variations on the Appalachian classic “I’ll Fly Away.” There was also Chicago’s Spektral Quartet, which with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón performed his eight-part suite Soy la Tradición, a seamless blend of improvisation, New World rhythms and chamber music elegance. The subtly captivating trio Trefoil (Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Kris Davis, piano; Gerald Cleaver, drums) also highlighted how purely improvised music can be mysterious, challenging and alluring without banging listeners over the head.

And while the festival didn’t make a big deal of it, the strength of women in music also emerged as a clear theme, too. The programming made apparent how veteran stars like Monk and Patti Smith, who delivered a wonderfully casual and intimate acoustic show that included readings from her book Just Kids, have paved the way for a new generation that includes Shaw, stardom-bound New Orleans reedist/vocalist Aurora Nealand and soulful young English saxophonist Nubya Garcia, whose enormous sound was startling.

But many Big Ears patrons were there to see a 68-year-old man — John Zorn — whose mini-festival-within-the-festival featured eight concerts of his compositions played by or with others, a format he has adopted of late, most recently in Hamburg, Germany. The Zorn marathon not only highlighted his one-of-a-kind alto saxophone virtuosity but also his scope, which included jagged, stop-and-start improvisation, intricately composed pieces that sounded like improvisation (especially when played by the dazzling vibraphonist Sae Hashimoto), celebratory Jewish tunes (New Masada Quartet) played with Ornette Coleman-like fervor, and even a sublime country rock set of his and Jesse Harris’ tunes by Petra Haden. The Zorn focus also underlined how influential William Burroughs’ “cut-up” concept has been on his writing, with the many sudden changeups from loud-hard-fast to quiet-slow-soft making the music sound as if it were proceeding on simultaneous alternate planes.

In an onstage interview at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Zorn compared his use of loud surprises to the squawking parrot transition in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which Welles put in, Zorn said, “to make sure the audience hadn’t fallen asleep,” though the only time there was any chance of that was when Zorn sat down at the organ at St. John’s Cathedral and delivered what sounded mostly like a random series of noises.

John Hollenbeck closed Big Ears with a wonderful new quartet called GEORGE (named for George Floyd) that showcased Nealand imbuing the haunting sea chantey “The Grey Funnel Line” with jagged punk inflections. When the band stopped, Hollenbeck offered yet another summation of the Big Ears esthetic, thanking Executive Director Ashley Capps for “booking a band that has not only never played together, but had never even met.” DB



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February 2023
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