2019 BIG EARS FESTIVAL
March 18-25, 2019
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Today I decided to start with breakfast in the Hilton at 8:30 a.m. I headed out into Knoxville and visited the area of the city that hosted the World's Fair in 1982.
Then I hiked over to the Knoxville Museum of Art to look at the exhibitions. The major exhibition was about glass.
This piece was really cool. It is made of thread spools which create a Mona Lisa upside that is seen right side up through a glass viewer. Amazing.
There are two events at the KMA today. One starts at noon: Tim Story Presents the Roedelius Cells. Here is the program description: Several years ago, Story considered the hours of Roedelius’ effortless improvisations and outtakes he had captured over the years, when the paragon would simply play between sessions or takes. He began to cut them into tiny musical slivers, splicing them together and editing them together to make prismatic new pieces from the pure piano beauty. In 2016, Story released these reimagined fantasies as The Roedelius Cells, an exquisite collection of eight wonderful edits, each floating like silvery, solitary clouds. He then took the idea one step further, splitting the audio across eight channels that play through speakers arranged in a ring.
This was one of those experiences that can go either way for a listener. For me, to stand in a ring with strangers while others stand outside the ring yakking it up failed to move me. So I moved on.
The second event at KMA is one that has been circled on my Must See list since I heard of this event: Roomful of Teeth. The stage was being set for tonight’s concert when I left the KMA.
I have all day to do stuff so I decided to take the free downtown trolley up to the University of Tennessee campus. I went to the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.
When I got out of the museum it was raining so I got a little wet waiting to ride the trolley back downtown. I then walked over to the East Tennessee History Center on the main drag in downtown Knoxville.
Then I had just enough time to get back to the hotel, order room service, and settle in to watch the first half of the Marquette Golden Eagles vs. Murray State in the NCAA.
(This might be a good time to talk about my camera: it is not allowed into the concert venues. However, cell phone photos are allowed so I will let you know what the source for the photos is as we go along)
At half time I headed back to the Knoxville Art Museum to see the Roomful of Teeth concert. Here is the program description: assimilating throat singing and heavy metal screaming and yodeling and deep harmonizing into a toolkit through which they can summon and deliver some of the world’s most challenging and rewarding new music.
My cell phone from my front row seat!
Denice and I saw Caroline Shaw with Present Music in Milwaukee and she is one of the key elements as a performer and as a composer in Roomful of Teeth.
To say the band was amazing would be an understate. First off, I got a front row seat. Second, eight voices singing the unusual arrangements and devices they choose to sing is almost indescribable. This did not disappoint on any level.
The same cannot be said for the next act at the KMA. Here is the description: Hailing from South Africa, guitarist Derek Gripper’s work explores the dialogue between numerous disparate styles of music from around the globe. In one concert, it is not uncommon to hear his solo guitar transcriptions of Toumani Diabaté's kora compositions and Bach’s violin works, along with South African jazz and avant-garde Brazilian songs. Gripper’s concerts are at once intimate and explosive, improvised and composed, traditional and entirely new.
That’s sounds pretty good. What we got was an hour delay in starting. Then Gripper came out, sat down behind a table of electronic stuff, put the guitar in his lap and proceeded to make sonic noises for 45 minutes. While some of it had charm, I was less than impressed. The good news was that it was done by 9:15 p.m. so I could go on to the next venue.
At the St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral, a performance was scheduled for a group called Artifacts Trio. Here is the concert description: In 2015, the goal for flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed wasn’t merely to celebrate five decades of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the esteemed and prophetic collective to which the young trio belonged.
This free jazz concert did not disappoint. Both Reid and Reed are masters of their instruments but I am not sure I have ever heard anyone play the flute like Nicole Mitchell. I was very happy the night ended with another magical concert.
Then, back to the hotel to watch the end of the NCAA. Unfortunately for us, Marquette was eliminated this afternoon so now I am free to root for the Badgers tomorrow.
Friday, March 22, 2019
Today I set the alarm to get up as I wanted to eat breakfast and be ready to head over to the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral because banjo player Bela Fleck is doing a concert with harpist Edmar Castaneda. Here is the description of the show: What, one may wonder, might a banjo virtuoso and a master of the Colombian harp two decades his junior have to say to one another? That is the animating question and motivating factor of the new duo of Béla Fleck and Edmar Castañeda, major deities in their chosen fields.
Big Ears photo
Big Ears photo
I feel that many superlatives are being used in this blog but I cannot share how amazing this concert was. Castaneda is a phenom on the harp, playing it like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Harpo Marx. As good as Bela Fleck is, he was overshadowed by the sheer energy exhibited by the harpist. The duo got a standing ovation in the middle of the concert when they fanatically played a Castaneda song called For Jaco, in remembrance of the great bassist Jaco Pastorius. This will probably be the highlight of the weekend for me.
Speaking of bass players, I was about to see one of jazz’s greatest. After grabbing a quick bite for lunch, I went right back to the Cathedral to here Larry Grenadier. Here is the description of the concert: The résumé of bassist Larry Grenadier is itself a work of art: As a teenager in California, he played with West Coast jazz luminaries. After a post-graduate stint in Gary Burton’s band, a move to New York soon propelled him to the ranks of first-call musicians, with his righteously warm tone and sensational understanding of song and momentum becoming his calling cards. The bassist of Brad Mehldau’s repertoire-redefining trio, he has been the pianist’s steadfast sideman for more than 20 years.
Knowing I would not get another chance to eat today, I headed over to a Vietnamese restaurant for some noodles. Then is was game on concertwise for the rest of the day.
My first stop at the Bijou Theatre was to see a the Parker/Schlippenbach/Lytton Trio. However, there were six guys on stage and a weak introduction by Parker confused me about the line up changes. Ultimately it did not matter as I was not impressed with the free style of the group including the fact that it became obvious for their time the boys intended to play one long song. I left after about 20 minutes.
New York Times photo
It was a very good thing that I did because after a very short walk back to the Cathedral and a short wait in a rather long line, I was all set to see the legendary guitarist Ralph Towner. In some ways, coming to a huge event like this is amazing at the talent you can see just making one choice after another. Towner played a solid hour of very typical Towner songs and that meant I saw a legend. The funniest line of the concert was when he told us last December he had triple bypass and since then he feels like he is playing better. “So, if you get the chance, have one!” he told us.
For the rest of the night, I will be in the beautiful Tennessee Theater. The first act is Peter Gregson, cellist, with five local cellists doing Bach. The sound was great including pre-recorded synths. Here is the description: Call it the audacity of youth: In October 2018, Peter Gregson—an accomplished British cellist and composer who is barely thirty—will release Bach: The Cello Suites, his bold two-disc attempt to pull perhaps the most famous set of cello suites ever written into this century. Gregson’s epic Bach: The Cello Suites is the latest piece in Deutsche Grammophon’s Recomposed series, where contemporary composers take on the classics.
Unfortunately, right in the middle of the 6th suite, they kicked the whole group off the stage as they were late in starting and over time in completing the music. Disappointing time wise but not in the quality of the music.
The next event in the Tennessee Theater was Triptych (Eyes Of One On Another), featuring Roomful Of Teeth, Composed By Bryce Dessner, Libretto By Korde Arrington Tuttle, featuring the work Of Patti Smith & Essex Hemphill.
This was a multi-media event with the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe display on a huge screen behind the musicians. Here is the description: Like many others, Naughton had wondered just what Mapplethorpe’s images—of New York’s bondage subculture, of vogue celebrities and nude bodybuilders, of gay personalities in various states of undress, of flowers captured in sensual states—could say to a postmillennial world of legalized gay marriage and instant online access to the most extreme fetishes. In TRIPTYCH (EYES OF ONE ON ANOTHER), a bold new work that will makes its world premiere shortly before Big Ears 2019, an esteemed coterie of composers, performers, directors, and writers explore Mapplethorpe’s meaning and legacy. Composed by the Grammy-winning Bryce Dessner of The National and featuring texts from Essex Hemphill and Mapplethorpe’s longtime mutual muse, Patti Smith, TRIPTYCH explores the eroticism of and inspiration for Mapplethorpe’s images.
For me, the music was overwhelmed by the photos which made me uncomfortable. Call me squeamish, but large photos of male penises and male bondage was hard to look at and very distracting. I stayed through the whole thing because I felt like I should but I cannot say I enjoyed the experience. By the way, if you want to see what Mapplethorpe’s photos look like, you can go ahead and Goggle them for yourselves.
Each night there are multiple late night events in the small venues but I am more interested in getting a late night snack in the bar and watching the late games of the NCAA.
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Today is day five of musical events in Knoxville at Big Ears and it is beginning to seem challenging yet sustainable. Events like this take stamina and determination on the part of the attendees and I am finding that I have the endurance to do this without complaint.
After a lazy morning of breakfast and reading, I head over to the Bijou Theatre to experience a group I am not familiar with. The program is called Cellular Songs and the presenter is Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble. Here is the description: Only a year after its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Monk returns to Big Ears with a rare performance of her latest concert-length work, Cellular Songs. Cellular Songs examines life on the microscopic level, exploring and expressing biological processes like cell division and genetic mutation through the ineffable talents of her Vocal Ensemble and a stage show of video, lights, and theater. Monk and her cadre of singers build an overwhelming array of music from tiny sounds that bend and move at will, just as a body is built from millions of cells interacting on their own terms.
Big Ears photo
New York Times photo
I am not sure that my words would even begin to describe what attending this event was like. It was impossible to not be overwhelmed by the vocal technique, awed by the talented singers and stunned by the choreographed use of movement, costume, sound and energy. This was one amazing stage performance. I feel so lucky that I was drawn to the description for whatever reason as I was rewarded with one of the top highlights for me over the four days.
Lucky for me the next act, one I had wanted to see since I had ready the superlative reviews of their cd from 2017, was performing in in the same venue, The Bijou Theater. Matt Wilson’s Honey & Salt is a group of jazz musicians who perform to Wilson’s arrangements of the poetry by Carl Sandburg. Here is the description: Matt Wilson will present Honey & Salt, a project over a decade in the making featuring Carl Sandberg’s poetry in an eclectic variety of musical settings. Honey & Salt was cited on over 35 “Best Of” lists in 2017.
Lest that sound like it would be introspective (which at times it was), this was one of the most fun sets of music during the festival. Wilson’s boundless energy behind the drums propels the whole ensemble. A small quibble would be that the female guitarist Dawn Thompson’s playing and vocals were not as dynamic as I would have liked but it was still a good show and I was glad I went.
Each day I have to force myself to skip something in order to eat and today during this time period I went and had fried chicken at Chicken and Beer while watching a little of the NCAA basketball.
I got in line one hour early to ensure that I would be inside the Tennessee Theater to see a group of people I cannot believe I am seeing. This is the 50th anniversary of ECM records and there are musicians here who are dream wish list folks including this afternoon’s trio: Carla Bly (now over 80 years old), Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. This was an ECM concert so the music was pretty mellow but it was pure and magical. What a treat to be able to see these jazz standard bearers live.
I raced from the Tennessee over to St. John’s Cathedral to stand in a long line before the solo Bela Fleck concert. I was uncertain if I was going to get in and thought at one point to bale—but I not only got in, I got an aisle seat with a great view of this master banjo player. Bela said because he was close to home he could bring a lot of banjos which was true: I counted seven different banjos—each with its own sound and purpose. Although I have seen Bela before I was really glad I went and saw him again—he is a master at his craft.
Putting on my track shoes again, I raced back to the Tennessee Theater, and thanks to a delayed start, I was able to catch almost all of the next trio: Jack Dejohnette with Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison. This was powerful straight ahead jazz. When DeJohnette could barely walk across the stage, I was reminded of his age. When he sat down behind his kit, I was reminded that age is only a mental block to accomplishing greatness. This was one of the loudest, rockiest sets I saw in the four days and I was super impressed.
For the rest of the night I decided to settle in at the Bijou Theater for some film experiences. The first film was a Fatty Arbuckle / Buster Keaton film called Coney Island (which was delightful) with acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge providing the sound track live.
But then came one of the highlights for me, a chance to see one of my guitar heroes Bill Frisell (with the Mesmerists (Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen)) provide the sound track to an art house compilation of old film created by Bill Morrison. To say that Frisell met my expectations would be an understatement—this was a concert that drew you in and did not let go for 90 minutes. Awesome!
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Today is the last day of the festival and I have to admit that this day did not quite work out the way I wanted but it was still better being here than anywhere else I could think of.
After breakfast, I headed to the pedestrian mall to buy Denice some Knoxville Chocolate Co. wonders. They are closed on Sunday.
I headed over to the conference headquarters to buy a long sleeve tee shirt that has the entire lineup on the back. They only had smalls left.
My first concert of the day was at the Tennessee Theatre at 1:00 p.m. and it was two pianists: Vijay Iyer (who was one of the reason I came to this festival) and Craig Taborn. Here is the description: Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn are among the most important pianists working in music today. A MacArthur fellow, Grammy nominee, Harvard professor, and winner of DownBeat’s artist-of-the-year honors multiple times, Iyer is a tireless composer, improviser, and bandleader. Taborn, meanwhile, has pushed more toward jazz’s outer experimental limits, playing with hardliners like Tim Berne and Evan Parker, David Torn and Ikue Mori. But his solo albums, particularly 2017’s brilliant Daylight Ghosts, demonstrate his sophisticated sense of harmony and poise, a supreme bandleader holding the center fast.
Big Ears photo
I was able to score a seat in the eighth row dead center for this one. Unfortunately, the concert was good but not great. I talked to another guy later about why that might have been and he said, “It was like the Mozart movie…too many notes.” Still, it was Vijay Iyer so I will able to say I saw one of the piano gods.
Next up, at 4:00 p.m. was Bill Frisell’s Harmony featuring Petra Haden, Hank Roberts & Luke Bergman at The Mill & Mine, a new facility for me which is up on the far end of the downtown. Here is the description: Haden and Frisell released a charming collection of duets, from reinterpretations of Stevie Wonder and Coldplay to songbook standards like “I’ve Got a Crush on You" with longtime collaborator Petra Haden singing as he plays guitar alongside cellist, Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman on baritone guitar. Their chemistry was clear, with their pristine tones and sense of enthusiasm perfectly simpatico.
Big Ears photo
Do you know Subway now offers mini-subs? I do because I had to grab two on the way to the next venue because I was starving. I was heading over to the St. John’s Cathedral because they were going to perform Arvo Pärt’s Passio which tells the tale of Christ’s trial.
Big Ears photo
It is a beautiful piece and was done competently by the choir—but not professionally because they are not professionals. Little things bugged me so once again today—I enjoyed the experience but it was not the jaw dropping session I was hoping for.
I walked a few short blocks over to the Bijou Theater to check out Harold Budd and Friends. Here is the description: Whatever the term, Budd’s music exists in a sort of waking dream, with textures that seem to hover just above the surface of the earth and melodies that you can never quite catch but you love to watch float by just the same.
Big Ears photo
Despite the fact that there were ten musicians on stage, at one point during the performance a guy opening a beer can in the audience drowned out the orchestra. After about one half hour of basically minimalist soundscape sound, Harold Budd walked off the stage. Next the guitarist left, then the percussionist. Now there was seven people on stage and still just romantic noodling. I decided this, unfortunately, was how my experience at Big Ears would end.
After an antipasto salad at local pizza parlor, I headed back to my room for some NCAA basketball and to pack.
Monday, March 25, 2019
I got up at 5:00 a.m. Central time, packed and was on the road by 6:00 a.m. Ten hours and 647 miles later I was home.
I sincerely believe this was one of the most magical musical experiences I have ever had. I am definitely planning on returning in 2020.