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Big Ears ‘22​

The Big Ears Festival is so vast and comprehensive that no one can possibly see it all. Each
attendee is forced to choose, and thereby experience, their own individual Big Ears.
What follows was mine.

Balun

This is an eight-member band of New York/Puerto Rican musicians who merge traditional instruments (Quattro, pan pipes, percussion, etc.) and electronica. Their jumping-off point is Reggaeton. But they pick up shiny musical influences from a wide array of pop/rock dispensaries. The accordion-playing vocalist has the reverb cranked up to drench and demonstrates a magnificent unearned self-regard along with a sense of pitch so elusive as to be irrelevant.

Shabaka Hutchings and the Knoxville Symphony

Shabaka Hutchings is the British-based Jaz reed player that has been creating a significant buzz of interest. In this outing he was paired with the Symphony for a performance of the Copeland Clarinet Concerto.

The concert opened with the orchestra performing Carolyn Shaw’s brief piece Entre Act. The piece is pleasant but unmemorable. It gave no hint of Shaw’s true compositional strengths.

The Clarinet Concerto, however was exceptional. Hutchings demonstrated both blissful virtuosity and deep musical intelligence.

The concert concluded with Copeland’s Appalachian Spring which the orchestra played with gentleness and love.

Sparks

The Mael brothers – Ron and Russell – encased their very specific Pop aesthetic in amber 50 years ago. And neither two generations of cultural influences nor actuarial imperatives have made a dent on that surface. However, within those unbridgeable boundaries, the boys still undeniably bring the goods. A good time was had by all. There was dancing in the aisles.

Joe Henry and 115th Dream Band

Any band that has Jason Moran on piano and Marc Ribot on guitar is a dream, regardless of the number. Joe Henry rebounded from a devastating bout of cancer in 2018 with a suite of deep and introspective songs. The powerful testimony of the songs was supported and enhanced by a blazing and empathic ensemble. Just to add to the firepower, Bill Frisell settled into the second guitar chair to lift the proceedings into the stratosphere.

Craig Taborn Trio

Billed as Taborn’s trio, it was actually a creative collaboration of three like-minded musical voyagers. In addition to Taborn on piano and electronics, the ensemble included Tamica Reed on cello and Ched Smith on percussion. Smith’s setup was all-inclusive. You could build the space shuttle in about the same amount of time it must take to assemble that rig. Our musical tour guides then proceeded to generously and expansively embrace the audience with 60 minutes of a fascinating private language. While the vocabulary was unfamiliar, it was never insular. We were invited in and included in the conversation. There was a score up on the Manhasset’s. But I can’t imagine what it looked like. Maybe it was a road map. I enjoyed the trip.

Dafnis Prieto

The Cuban-born Prieto is a subtle and propulsive drummer. His quartet featuring Peter Applebaum on tenor and soprano sax and melodica, used the seductive rhythms of Latin Jazz to venture out and prowl around the borders of customary Jazz performance expectations.

Carolyn Shaw and So Percussion

Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part.

Vocalist, violinist, and composer Shaw is the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 2021 she and the four members of So Percussion – an ensemble of breathtaking range and invention – collaborated to create this piece. Taking fragments of text ranging from Anne Carson, to James Joyce to ABBA, Shaw’s musical and emotional language is fresh and entirely free of cliché. Shaw’s voice is rich and charismatic. Her subtle use of loops and phase shifters at times created a chorus, and the So ensemble demonstrated inexhaustible musical resources – sometimes a whisper, then a rock band, even a symphony.

I still don’t know why the experience was so profoundly emotional. But it was.

Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part.

Vocalist, violinist, and composer Shaw is the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 2021 she and the four members of So Percussion – an ensemble of breathtaking range and invention – collaborated to create this piece. Taking fragments of text ranging from Anne Carson, to James Joyce to ABBA, Shaw’s musical and emotional language is fresh and entirely free of cliché. Shaw’s voice is rich and charismatic. Her subtle use of loops and phase shifters at times created a chorus, and the So ensemble demonstrated inexhaustible musical resources – sometimes a whisper, then a rock band, even a symphony.

I still don’t know why the experience was so profoundly emotional. But it was.

Patty Smith

Patty, and her band, brought the thunder. She still has all the glorious punk rock swagger of old. She even still spits onstage magnificently. And while her ferocity remains undiminished, she now invites humor and even sweetness into the room.

When she sang Because The Night it destroyed me. There was such an air of immediacy, even urgency at the moment, that the entire audience felt it and sang along with her.
Bonus Track: I had a long conversation with her at breakfast the next morning. She was approachable, even vulnerable. It was a real connection and an unforgettable moment.

Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, and Jason Moran:

The Music Of Ron Miles

The quartet had been a quintet when trumpeter/cornetist Miles was a part of the band. Indeed, they were the initial post-Covid band to re-open the Village Vanguard. Miles was a composer and educator based in Denver who was just beginning to acquire a wide appreciation for his compositions when he passed away suddenly recently. This concert was a moment for the band
– and the audience – to celebrate the life and musical legacy of a remarkable musician who is gone far too soon.

The music and the playing were elegant, lyrical, and soulful. The performance closed with the final piece Miles composed shortly before his death.

The atmosphere of the evening was so suffused with love and reverence that it was not a concert per se but rather a collective prayer.

Carolyn Shaw and the Attacca Quartet

The string quartet opened with two muscular pieces by Shaw. She then joined them to sing two re-composed and re-harmonized Appalachian songs – Will There Be Stars In My Crown and I’ll Fly Away. Then the quartet performed a brand- new piece by Shaw inspired by the landscape of an island off of the west coast of Canada.

It was all beautiful, fresh, and mysteriously emotionally rich.

Meredith Monk and The Bang On A Can All-Stars

Memory Games

The Bang band provided the musical/orchestral accompaniment for the Monk ensemble performance. They performed two pieces from the ‘80’s that had been commissioned but never performed. One was a post-apocalyptic setting with an evil “game-master” and the other a slight piece inspired by Monk’s first visit to Tokyo. The vocal performances had all of Monk’s signature yips, howls, and soaring ululations. The music was interesting and it was played with sympathetic fluency. But Monk’s writing and storytelling is authentically awful. It is so bad that it is an actual impediment to hearing her work, which is innovative and could be compelling.

It must be noted that the Monk ensemble had that look that was prevalent in the 60’s avant- garde, of blissed out high seriousness. It was the look of true devotees – ones who may have taken vows. It was adorable.

Ellen Reid and Soundwalk Ensemble

The ensemble consisted of violin, viola, cello, harp, and a reed player (flute, alto-flute, piccolo) and the composer on keyboard. The music was augmented with wordless, reverb-rich vocals provided by the ensemble members.

Reid normally composes geo-specific soundscapes i.e., Central Park, Griffith Park etc. For the festival she arranged a suite of pieces for concert performance. The music was elegant, and beautiful. But soon grew to feel arid and, finally, suffocating.

Jason Moran – Solo Piano

This was the third setting over two days that I had heard Moran. Each outing was a surprising gift. However, this was unexpectedly powerful.

To hear Moran solo, is to hear the echoes of every great pianist that proceeded him filtered through a remarkably creative consciousness. My notes read: Horowitz, Rachmaninov, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson mixed with dollop of Richard Feynman.

I suppose I could describe the tunes or the musical arc of the 60-minute performance. I will say that at one point he had the entire audience singing – then humming – a tune he had just introduced. We were that enraptured. But I’ll leave by reflecting that we were in the presence of generous creative spirit who was deeply rooted and breathtakingly open.

Miguel Zenon and The Spektral Quartet

Yo Soy La Tradicion

Zenon the MacArthur winning Puerto Rician alto sax master, and the innovative Chicago based Spektral string quartet, collaborated on this through-composed miracle. The piece is an examination of traditional Puerto Rician song forms, each lovingly tossed between and among the five musicians. The music was intelligent, affectionate, and original. The playing was brilliant and empathetic – it was if the five musicians were sharing one expansive musical mind.

Bang On A Can All-Stars

Tales Autodreamo-Graphical Tales

Terry Reilly sets his dream journal to music. The journal is read as the music accompanies and underscores the narrative. The piece was well performed. The band took the music seriously and played it with warmth and fluency.
The problem is the piece. The journal itself was twee and insular, as all dream journals will be. The music was one long amiable, cacophonous, hipster/beatnik groove. It was mildly charming, unsubstantial and unnecessary.

Kronos Quartet

A Thousand Thoughts

So, a simple description of the program should suffice: The Kronos Quartet playing a live score to a documentary about Kronos, narrated by the documentarian.

It was a perfect ouroboros of avant-garde self-regard. Gawd!