Big Ears 2022: March 24-27, Knoxville TN – Short takes on shows that I attended
Before I get into my show impressions, I just want to give some general, high-level observations that really come down to my personal preferences that directly affect my enjoyment of the shows. These relate to venue choices. I fully expect to attend future Big Ears fests but, moving forward I’m going to avoid venues that entail standing room only or obstructed vision if sitting. Of the venues I experienced this at (the Mill and Mine and The Standard), the performers would have to have an extremely “high value” bucket list draw for me to attend. Unfortunately, even if the performers were high on my list to check out but were at one of these venues, I would then opt-out to a lesser value show at a more comfortable space. Yes…I’m a geezer. So, let’s get to it…
Thursday, March 24
Kronos Quartet – Decent show but I found that the taped embellishment of a full orchestra at the end of the Clint Mansell piece from the soundtrack to The Fountain was very jarring and ruined the flow a little. Still…a good performance and the first five-minute piece could have come straight from the Univers Zero songbook. Cool rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” too.
So Percussion – Usually only 4 percussionists but this was a massively expanded unit with close to 20 people on stage including Kronos. They performed one very long piece that morphed and shifted between many styles. Electronics, strings, female singers, laptops, a human beatbox and… percussion…lots and lots of percussion. Pretty intense and very enjoyable, and LOUD!
Maeve Gilchrist – Celtic harpist and singer with some light touch electronics and tapes. Absolutely gorgeous set and I probably could have listened to her for hours. Lovely voice, great (and very heart-wrenching emotional) storytelling, incredibly talented and virtuoso harpist. If you ever get the chance……………….
James McVinnie and Tristan Perich – James is a classically trained organist and for this set, he was using a pipe organ at one of Knoxville’s churches beefed up with two large speaker arrays, not to mention the many pipes from the organ spread out in the front of the church. Tristan is an electro-acoustic sound diffuser that I know way too little about. I thought he was tweaking McVinnies playing in real-time but then I was told that it was just the software algos built into the piece as he was playing it. Whatever, who cares…this thing was INTENSE!!! A 60-minute journey of heavier-than-shit organ music that totally conjured the vast, snowy landscapes spun up by Sibelius. Liturgical, sacred, and MAJESTIC as hell is how I would describe it and I need to buy their music post fucking haste!!! Of the two days, this was my favorite performance so far. (If Rick Wakeman saw this performance, he would have retired long ago…sorry proglodytes.)
Sparks – What can I say. I wouldn’t call myself even a casual fan, but I always dug and respected what they do. I put them in the same bucket as Queen and 10cc in terms of creative and innovative production qualities. I was super impressed that they pulled their sound off live, and they did a fine job of recreating the “big production” feel. However, two hours of their schtick started to wear on me. Enjoyable show but it was very much the Brothers Mael baby, and the actual “Sparks” band were in the background and, frankly…hardly noticeable. BTW, Russell still has a great voice and a great falsetto, he still has it!
Friday, March 25
75 Dollar Bill – Wow man…incredible! Think early Third Ear Band taking up a residency in the Appalachian hinterlands and then having a come to Jesus moment with the Buddha who was fond of channeling the more spiritual side of the AACM. That’s 75 Dollar Bill, right there! Fucking amazing!
Harriet Tubman – Haven’t heard them till the trip down here and then found out that Brandon Ross is the guitarist! Brandon floored me on those Laswell-produced Threadgill albums, so this stoked me up, big time. And as if I needed more…Melvin Gibbs (who I know from back in the day with Power Tools) is the bassist. So, I was pretty excited but…ultimately let down, but only a little. A lot of it had to do with the venue, the Mill and Mine where they pack you in like sardines on the main floor which of course is standing room and the balcony has somewhat obstructed vision. Also, the sound wasn’t all that great with Gibbs being mixed way too hot. Still a great show but would have muchly preferred to see them in a “theater” setting. BTW, they are “spiritual fusion” and Brandon absolutely DID NOT disappoint. The sound was exactly what I loved about those Threadgill records. (75 Dollar Bill was also at Mill and Mine and again, would have much preferred to see them in a theater setting but oh well.)
Sō Percussion with Caroline Shaw – One of the best sets I’ve seen so far. Sō Percussion was down to their regular 4 piece but still had a forest of percussive implements on stage. Caroline has a voice to die for!!! Beautiful, uplifting music that reached the joyous level of the best of Magma (while sounding nothing like them of course). At times she live-processed her own voice which filled the Tennessee theater with waves of sound…totally immersive. Unbelievably great show!
Julian Lage Trio-Wow Wow, another great set. Lage, while not playing anything particularly “out” is just so technically perfect and plays with massive amounts of emotion. This is a guy who has surgically honed his art to perfection. On drums was Kenny Wollesen who is playing in the many Zorn sets and acoustic bassist Jorge Roeder…basically a rhythm section to die for. Excellent way to end the evening.
Saturday, March 26
Ensemble Dal Niente-This Chicago based ensemble was doing a residency at the Knoxville Museum of Art and what a way to start the day. Their schedule was such that they were doing consecutive performances every 30-60 minutes. I popped in there early to see them perform a piece called Forward Echo by Katinka Kleijn which was inspired by real life Civil War drum calls. This…was excellent! The ensemble was large, maybe around 15 performers on various percussion, reeds (including Ken Vandermark), strings, Harp, and Accordion. The ensemble was also split in half with each subset performing on a different level of the Museum but still within sightlines. For the most part, it had a spikey, contemporary classical sound with some dashes of Stravinsky and/or Bartok but then, the last few minutes they broke into a rousing and uplifting march bringing the Americana sound of Charles Ives to the fore. Really glad to attend this and it was great seeing the composer there for this performance.
John Zorn: Meditations on the Tarot – This was a Piano Trio of Brian Marsella (p) (who is described as “too Classical for Jazz and too Jazz for Classical”), Kenny Wollesen (d), and Trevor Dunn (acoustic bass). The first of many AMAZING Zorn sets! First time hearing Marsella who was great, and very animated behind the ivories…but there are different degrees of “animated” and Wollesen brought it to another level behind the drum kit and was a joy to watch. Dunn (of course) was rock solid and anchored the whole affair down making this trio tighter than a drum. Most of the material seemed to be composed but still plenty of room for all of them to fly off into virtuoso solo land…Marsella especially was jaw-dropping with his quick, Don Pullen inflected note clusters. Can’t really put a finger on their style because the vibe kept changing but for the most part, it was highly melodic and nothing too far outside. Outstanding!
John Zorn: Songs for Petra Haden – Friends have been raving about Petra, both in a Zorn context and in other contexts (like her one-woman Who Sell Out thing) and I was so very glad to finally have the opportunity to see her. Surprise (NOT!) …another great Zorn-related show of quirky pop tunes in GREAT voice with a killer band of Julian Lage (g), Jesse Harris (acoustic guitar and some voice), Jorge Roeder (acoustic bass), and Kenny Wollesen (d). The thing about these songs (all about 3-4 minutes long) were, as quirky and unusual as they were…they were still pop songs and extremely singable, in fact they were downright earworms. They all left room for a solo break by various members of the band but mostly Lage…and when he soloed…wow, absolutely stratospheric. (As an aside, Lage was probably my unsung hero of this entire fest.) Petra was exuberant, with personality to spare and this was a very uplifting set. Grade A++
Ensemble Dal Niente – Had a little downtime so I ran back to the Museum to try and catch more of this ensemble. I was able to catch most of their performance of James Tenney’s Swell Piece. This was about a 40 minute straight acoustic drone piece performed by a scaled-down subset of reeds, wind instruments, strings, and Harp. The stage was moved in front of a picture window with a great view of the museum grounds. This piece was quiet and solemn and needed a “deep listen” to appreciate all the layered nuances manifesting themselves underneath the general “hum” of the combination of all instruments. Very nice! (BTW, Ensemble Dal Niente’s new album called Object/Animal was just released and is excellent and very diverse.)
Sarah Davachi – She performed about a 60-minute piece on the pipe organ in St. John’s Cathedral. Listening to this took some work, to say the least…and unfortunately, I wasn’t up to the task. The first 30 minutes was basically one long sustained chord with very subtle and quiet, actually barely audible arpeggios layered over the top. Eventually, she began to modulate the chording up and down a little, but it was still very minimalistic. I have no doubt that, under different circumstances I would have been able to give this piece the deep listen it rightly deserved (and I know I would have enjoyed it much more) but I just wasn’t in the right space, mentally to fully appreciate this. I’ve seen Sarah quite a few times before this show and have always been nothing less than wowed…but I guess the day was starting to catch up to me and I couldn’t find the right headspace to fully dig this. That being said…I think I’m going to seek this out to enjoy on my own time.
Annette Peacock – Ah yes…one of the reasons I attended this fest to begin with. A bucket list performer for me indeed, and I knew exactly what I was going to get…and got just that. Darkened stage with one pink light at her feet, very minimal interaction with the audience, typically fragmented and disjointed piano chording’s (a trademark) with the occasional string synth backdrop and some canned, funky drumbeats and… of course her voice. At 81 she sounds like…Annette! Not much has changed and I was treated to her own special brand of singing and singing / talking / rapping. And it was all good…it was all very good…and now I’m happy!!! Beautiful way to end a day of stellar music!
Sunday, March 27
Sarah Davachi – This was a 12 noon show and I was quite a bit more “present” for it this time around. Also, she performed in a more comfortable venue with decent seating (church pews are NOT comfortable) so that helped. Additionally, this was an “electronic” show with what looked like modular synth gear. Subsequently, my enjoyment level was magnified as I let the 60-minute set of floating, gently morphing sounds swirl around my head. Lots of attention to little details in the manipulations embedded within the slowly crawling sounds. There was much more variation in the overall tonal palette as well, so this was nowhere near that static level of the pipe organ show. Highly enjoyable and glad I checked her out again!
John Zorn: Chaos Magick – A quartet of Matt Hollenberg (g), Kenny Grohowski (d), John Medeski (hammond organ) and Brian Marsella (electric piano) that ripped through time and space better than any spice addled Guild Navigator could ever hope to! If I thought this was brutal, it’s because I had zero idea of what awaited me with the other two Zorn sets, I’ve yet to see…but yeah, this was rehearsal intensive brutal avant-prog/avant-jazz of the best possible kind. Marsella was an unhinged maniac on the electric piano and I found it difficult to take my eyes off of him. Hollenberg was searing. Grohowski was a machine that specialized in finesse and Medeski came close to out Jimmy Smith-ing Jimmy Smith! Zorn ran out late in the set to direct/conduct the group and the whole stage landscape was a multimedia sound/art landscape with the help of his bonkers hand signals. An aural and visual feast I won’t soon forget. WOW!
Mary Lattimore – This was my second solo Harp performance and boy, after the previous Zorn set this was a welcome oasis. Like Maeve Gilchrist, Lattimore is quite the accomplished player. Unlike Gilchrist, these seemed to be (although I’m not sure since I’m unfamiliar with her music) all original compositions. The compositions themselves were designed to show less pyrotechnics and every note and chord played was in service of the overall whole. A key component was the live looping being done which gave each piece a fully immersive, kaleidoscopic aura. She even fed back some of the playing in reverse which added a real nice touch to her live work over it. This was a very mellow, highly enjoyable set of Harp music with a folky, slightly melancholic vibe and I’ll be investigating her music more. High marks.
John Zorn: New Masada Quartet – Masada is back, only this time (slightly) electrified. John Zorn (as), Julian Lage (electric guitar), Kenny Wollesen (d), and Jorge Roeder (acoustic bass). John did a whole lot of conducting, sometimes as he was playing the sax and from where I sat…he was having a good old time. I think they all were, judging from the perpetual smiles everyone had. (And BTW, the audience too.) This was mostly high-energy, middle eastern infused jazz that had EVERYONE on the edge of their seats. The soloing from all (but especially Lage) was spellbinding and after we picked our jaws up from the floor, all we could do was shake our heads in… like, did that really happen? Even Zorn seemed to be in disbelief after witnessing some of the chops displayed here. I want to say they opened with a short, frenetic Ornette piece and then it was total middle eastern after that. A cooking, roiling, broiling set and… I’m running out of adjectives…sorry. It was just terrific, and we’ll leave it at that.
John Zorn: New Electric Masada – Everyone in the Masada Quartet (excepting Roeder) and add Bill Frisell (electric guitar), Kenny Grohowski (percussion), Ches Smith (d), Trevor Dunn (electric bass), Brian Marsella (electric piano) and John Medeski (Hammond organ) …so, a nine-piece. At that size, I was scared of train wrecks and the whole affair becoming a mess, but those concerns were quickly squelched. I think a lot of it had to do with Zorn’s physical directions (as in Masada). This whole stew came across as one massive, well-oiled automaton that came very close to reaching god-like dimensions. Seriously, this beast just slayed! Pretty much the same “type” of music as the Quartet only louder and fuller (if that was even possible). Marsella was so possessed that his glasses flew off his face and mild-mannered Frisell was laying down massive metal chords on the last piece when, combined with Dunn’s deep, heavy bass was enough to move mountains. The two drummers and percussionists provided the nuclear fission but in triplicate and JZ was semaphoring the whole time whilst making his sax scream. All were laughing and grinning, as if they were even surprising themselves at this monstrosity. This was the end of the fest for me…I mean, what could follow THAT??? (I had to stay up for a few hours just to calm down.) What an ending!
This was only my second Big Ears fest experience and I’m already eagerly anticipating next year’s edition. Kudos and thanks to all the performers, organizers, and back-line folks that made this happen. See you next year!