You know you’re at the Big Ears Festival when Nathan Bowles, banjo and bones player for the old-time string band the Black Twig Pickers, enthusiastically shouts out Milford Graves, the sage of avant-garde jazz percussion. “I got my wig flipped!” Bowles said of Graves’ solo set, which took place on the same stage just hours before. Flipping wigs in this fashion is precisely the goal of the annual creative-music confab, which took place March 22-25 in about a dozen venues in downtown Knoxville, Tenn.
Big Ears doesn’t just cater to diehards of any one musical form or discipline. It finds commonalities between them, striving to cultivate a discerning public that finds value and sustenance in music of many kinds. And so iconic jazz composers and improvisers appear under the same banner as bluegrass veterans, classical mavericks, old-time folk primitivists, DJs and electronic sound sculptors. Film, prose and visual art have a role to play as well. There are artist interviews and panels, informal playing sessions and secret pop-up shows. There’s a superbly designed mobile app that allows attendees to customize a schedule and receive alerts as things unfold.