May 27, 2024

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Review: Big Ears Festival 2023: Charles Lioyd, John Zorn, William Parker, David Murray and other great musicians: Video, Photos

For years, I have been meaning to attend the Big Ears Our Festival which is held annually in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is one of the premier music festivals in the United States featuring cutting-edge, thought-provoking, and experimental music.

This year was my first time at the festival and I was impressed by the range of music featured. At most times there were as many as a dozen events happening simultaneously so I had to make some very difficult choices. I discuss below the acts that really stood out.

Charles Lloyd's Chapel Trio (Bill Frisell, Lloyd, Thomas Morgan)

Ava Mendoza

Nobody who has been paying attention should be surprised by guitarist Ava Mendoza’s fantastic performance festival, except that she keeps developing in new and unexpected forms of musical expression. I had the good fortune to attend her earliest solo performances in 2014 and have witnessed her refining and expanding her solo work over the past nine years. There is something startling organic about her playing. She comfortably references such an array of ideas in her work–from things that border on singer-songwriter to fierce rock riffs to deep Blues. At the festival, she added projectionist Sue-C who queued a series of landscapes and other images to accompany Mendoza’s sonic explorations in the Old City Performing Arts Center which had the best acoustics of all the venues. It was the Blues elements of her playing that particularly jumped out–they never felt recycled, in fact they were fresh and experimental, yet grounded and relevant. Mendoza’s Friday early evening performance was one of the highlights of the festival.

Sun Ra Arkestra - Live at Big Ears 2023

Moor Mother and Irreversible Entanglements

Every performance that Moor Mother does is profound. For the festival, she expanded her solo act–which usually is just her and a laptop–to a trio with vocalist Kyle Kidd and bassoonist Joy Wey. This expanded band was well conceived. The vocalist’s resonating and abstract vocals was the perfect counter to the bandleader’s spoken word and the bassoon was a work of genius in the way that it added emotional depth to the sonic palette. Moor Mother spun her tales, always deep reflections on violence and injustice in the U.S., and laced with elements of her own biography, with projections of her own showing the interior of abandoned prisons, among other things.

Moor Mother’s other band, the collabortive Irreversible Entanglements, is a quintet including alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Tcheser Holmes that played less than two hours after her earlier performance. This band summons an intensity that has few equals in the contemporary American musical landscape. Moor Mother’s biting social critique mingle within the common aesthetic of churning free jazz energy infused with a modern rhythmic drive. The entirety of the experience of the African diaspora is within their sights in the way they bridge the ancient with the modern, the unknown and the known, into a decisively-delivered narrative. The only thing holding this band back at the festival was being staged in the Jackson Terminal which had inadequate acoustics to handle their sound. The next time they come, they should be given a better stage like Bijou or the Tennessee Theatre. They will fill whatever room they are in.

William Parker

Visionary bassist William Parker helmed two brilliant performances. His longstanding band In Order to Survive with the fresh lineup of Gerald Cleaver on drums, Patricia Nicholson on words and dance, Ellen Christi on voice, and Rob Brown on drums, gave the festival audience a taste for something from the New York school of free jazz. Evolving, transdisciplinary narratives with counterpoint that create four dimensional sensory objects that expand the realm of the possible. The music seemed to move in multiple directions all at once through the hour-long performance.

Parker’s band Mayan Space Station, which played Saturday afternoon, featured a new direction that he has been developing over the past few years. The band is a trio comprised of guitarist Ava Mendoza with Cleaver also inhabiting the drum chair in this band. This group is aesthetically about as advanced as one can get with Parker providing the heartbeat for the band and Cleaver offering ever expanding and contracting doses of energy while Mendoza’s aqueous guitar washed over everything else in hues of red, blue, and deep violet. Mendoza is the first electric guitar player Parker has ever hired for a band and he chose well–both she and Cleaver never overplay and are extremely attentive listeners as they improvised together as a band, making it one of the true highlights of the festival.

Anthony Coleman

Pianist Anthony Coleman put on an extraordinary solo concert at Big Ears. Staged in the Old City Performing Arts Center, the audience could hear every single note and subtlety that this master laid out for them. A stalwart of the New York scene for over four decades, Coleman treated the audience to a wide range of pieces including one by Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tesgue-Maryam Guebrou that was particularly exquisite. Coleman made his visionary artistry seem effortless as he conversed with the audience between each piece and stretched the vocabulary of the piano in myriad directions.

Brandee Younger

Younger has been a rising star over the past five years as one of the premier American harpists of her generation. She is also a composer deserving of considerable praise, especially for what she delivered at the festival. Her band’s performance was tight, occasionally loosening up for flourishing solos, while the group interplay was also complex. If she faced any challenges, it was only the acoustics of St. John the Baptist Church which seemed to diminish her sound and augment the percussion such that she was drowned out at times. Other musicians who worked the same stage at different times, such as Ned Rothenberg’s Crossing Quartet faced similar hurdles. Nevertheless, Younger’s work warrants an expanding audience in the coming years.

James Brandon Lewis

Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis presented a rousing performance with a trio that includes bassist Jeff Horner and drummer Chad Taylor. Lewis has managed to absorb the whole history of his instrument from those who have come before him, while retaining a startlingly original, bold sound that connects immediately with audiences wherever he plays. Lewis is one of the few of his age that has truly mastered the art of the ballad with such expertise, while his range of expression reaches across the spectrum to free playing, complex composition, and sensitive improvisational interplay. His performance at the Standard drew an ecstatic response from the crowd. He must now be considered to be one of the greats on his instrument, continuing to grow as an artist with each record that he releases.

What I Missed

I had every intention of attending both of Mary Halvorson’s performances, but when I arrived I found a line out of the door and around the block with the venue at full capacity. I hope that the festival organizers observed this: next time Halvorson should be in the Tennessee Theatre. There were a number of acts there that did not fill the room, meanwhile Halvorson fans were being turned away. Give her the big stage. She will draw.

I also arrived midway through Nate Wooley’s solo performance because I had delays coming from the airport. Wooley remains one of the true visionaries of his generation on trumpet as he peers into the yet unknown beyond in search of new vocabularies. His solo work is where these ideas are presented in rawest and slimmed down form as he bears the secrets of his soul to the world.

The Future

The Big Ears Festival is one of the best curated annual music festivals in the United States. Since 2009, it has been challenging audiences with some of the most cutting-edge music available and it has not diminished its commitment to forming new audiences around younger performers while also staging established acts. It was a pleasure seeing some of the musicians I respect most with lines out the door.

Knoxville is a great city for Big Ears and I would hope that it continues to be the setting for this festival. It is good to see the festival’s commitment to featuring such a wide variety of music, including many forms of what have been historically Black music. But the festival organizers may be well served to consider how they may yet better support Black artists in this environment, especially in the wake of the Tennessee state legislature recently expelling Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson. It is impossible to ignore the bigger picture and the festival, which profits from including prominent Black musicians on their roster, should consider taking steps to apply pressure in whatever forms are possible to make it clear where they stand and how they will be working in future years to combat systemic racism in these settings. Silence is compliance. Many thanks to everyone who was involved in making the 2023 festival a resounding success.

The Big Ears Festival is always a smorgasbord of sound, a pan-global, cross-genre array of music unlike any on the planet. Held annually in Knoxville, TN, the 2023 edition, their 10th festival outing, was no different from the previous nine in its expansive musical embrace. From the jazz avant-garde to African kora players to electronic pioneers, Big Ears had it. There were artists you probably know, like Rickie Lee Jones and Bela Fleck, and artists you never heard of, like Jake Xerxes Fussell and Sona Jobarteh. And then, there was John Zorn.

John Zorn

If you were to characterize Big Ears 2023 in two words it would be John Zorn. Celebrating his 70th birthday, (born 9/2/1953) the iconoclastic composer and saxophonist’s name was all over the festival, even when he wasn’t actually performing, which was most of the time. After four days, you realized why. He is one of the most brilliant, eclectic and wide-ranging composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. His name was attached to several performances because even when he wasn’t on stage, his music or concepts were.

Because the festival had nearly 200 performances Tetrised into three and a half days, it was not possible to catch all that were Zorn related. Among the bounty was an exquisite guitar trio, Nova Cantici, with Julian Lage, Gyan Riley and Bill Frisell, playing Zorn compositions that had an intricacy and delicacy that was intoxicating. At times they sounded like the California Guitar Trio. At others they recalled the pyrotechnics of the John McLaughlin/Al Di Meola/Paco De Lucia trio of the 1970s. These trio compositions are among dozens of works that belie Zorn’s overriding reputation as a noise artist. They wove complicated lines and, except for what seemed like a few moments of improvisation, were largely through-composed. No wonder Gyan Riley passed on an interview with me so he could rehearse. I would’ve as well.

Among the many Zorn-branded performances that were a contrast was Zorn’s. This featured two ensembles. First up was the Brian Marsella Trio with Trevor Dunn on bass and drummer Kenny Wolleson. I’ve seen Wolleson in some of Bill Frisell’s more subdued outings, but here he was cranked up in full free-jazz throttle while Brian Marsella pounded his piano like the love-child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Cecil Taylor. Wolleson and Roeder made sure the groove never slowed down. While these were Zorn-based compositions, the improvisations were ecstatic.

The acoustic Marsella trio was followed by the very electric John Medeski Trio with Medeski from Medeski, Martin and Wood on Hammond organ, David Fiuczynski on electric guitar and G. Calvin Weston on drums. This trio was Black Sabbath if they’d decided to play Free Jazz. One song actually sounded like a Sabbath track with a heavy riff as Medeski wove a squirrelly solo across Weston’s crushing groove. Weston was a whirly-gig fury of rolling thunder on his double-bass drums while keeping the groove moving non-stop. Hearing John Medeski wrenching swirls of sound from his organ made me regret we don’t hear this instrument as much as we did about 50 years ago.

Brian Marsella also featured on Zorn’s “Suite for Piano.” Despite the classical-sounding title, this was free jazz, with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ches Smith ripping like jackhammers gone mad. You’ve heard of hard bop, but a lot of this was more like speed-bop, as Smith kept an almost non-stop frenetic pace on drums that drove the always ebullient Marsella into even more frenetic highs. At one point while throwing down Cecil Taylor-like clusters, he played so hard he knocked his glasses off. It was an exhilarating ride but the trio could also slow it down to what was almost an ethereal ballad. And although the music is inspired by Bach, I’m pretty sure I heard them quoting Dave Brubeck‘s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in there.

John Zorn - Masada: John Zorn, Jorge Roeder, Julian Lage, Kenny Wollesen

John Zorn’s Masada with Zorn, Jorge Roeder, Kenny Wollesen, Julian Lage At Tennessee Theater Big Ears 2023

As the festival is wont to do, they put out special “secret” performances that tend to mess up your schedule and/or your sleep. But the performance of John Zorn’s Masada at midnight was worth it. Something of an ad hoc group, this configuration consisted of Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Trevor Dunn, subbing for Bill Laswell, on electric bass, with Zorn actually taking the stage on alto saxophone. This was a more directed take on free improvisation with Zorn cueing the other musicians on pieces that often had a stop-start-stop-start-go-crazy approach. It was a full-force blowout with Zorn deploying a spray of sound, occasionally dropping-in klezmer riffs and rhythms. Masada was initially inspired by Radical Jewish Culture. Zorn is such a good saxophonist, I wish we heard him more in that role. He fully enjoys the moment, smiling at his musicians, moonwalking backwards and pulling them in and out of the groove. He even got the audience clapping to the rhythm on one piece. That rarely happens in an avant-garde jazz performance.

Zorn ended the festival with “Cobra.” This is one of his “game pieces” from his early days. Zorn directs the ensemble with flashcards and gestures, while the ensemble also directs each other into different combinations. On a 2022 panel at Big Ears, Zorn stated that “This is not entertainment.” But in this case, it was, because “Cobra” is kind of a party piece that is more fun than profound. With fourteen musicians onstage, Zorn creates a series of staccato moments, bursts of energy, seemingly arbitrary combinations and people just blowing their brains out musically.

While this concluded the festival around midnight on Sunday, it’s not the end of this review. Navigating Big Ears is difficult with multiple shows happening simultaneously. While many people flit about from one performance to the next, catching two or three songs here, a couple somewhere else, I try to stick with a show from beginning to end, unless it’s truly terrible.

Ibeyi - Live at Big Ears 2023

Ibeyi at Tennessee Theater, Big ears 2023, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz

A performance that was the opposite of terrible was Ibeyi, the French duo of twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz. Their father was the Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz, who was part of the Buena Vista Social Club and the Latin jazz band Irakere. Their mother is French-Venezuelan singer Maya Dagnino. Their music is joyful and deceptively deep. Bouyant melodies are underscored by darker Cuban and African based grooves. The sisters, especially Lisa, cavorted across the stage in seductive moves, Lisa tossing her long, curly mane into the air. On the song “Sister 2 Sister” about the relationship with her sister, she sings, “Dancing in front of the mirror, Singing along with Shakira.” You can definitely tell she did that. Their songs were soulful, ferocious, and sometimes sentimental. They sang in French, English and Yoruba, borrowing from hip-hop, R&B, and a bit of art-pop, powered by two phenomenal musicians on drums and keyboards, while Naomi played her father’s cajon and bata drums. They played music from across their career and almost all. They had the Tennessee Theatre audience dancing, clapping and singing along. Even me. Their cover of Black Flag‘s “Rise Above” would’ve been the climax for most bands, but they kept going after that with one peak after another.

The polar opposite of Ibeyi was Grouper, the stage name for Liz Harris. While Ibeyi wants to be seen and to see you, Grouper was shrouded in darkness, a person barely perceptible. There were projections on a screen above her that were pretty repetitive and mundane. On her albums, Harris’s vocals are a perceptible, but ethereal wisp. But here they were completely buried in oppressive waves of distorted textural layers that permeated the Point Knox venue, a converted church. I felt like I was being tortured into submission in one of the most excruciating concerts I’ve ever attended.

David Murray playing tenor Saophone

David Murray with Tarbaby at Bijou Theater, Big Ears 2023

Clearing my now foul mood, I walked the 1.3 miles to the completely opposite end of the festival’s venues to the Bijou theatre to catch Tarbaby, the trio of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits, the son of the great jazz drummer Freddie Waits. They are a formidable trio in their own right, but for this performance they were joined by saxophonist David Murray. What a joyful contrast to Grouper. As soon as I walked in, Murray was wailing over a storming groove. The band assayed a mix of originals and covers. “Kush” was a slow blues written by Waits, but Murray’s solo was a contrast as he spun on the chord changes and added upper trilling squeals. Now 68, Murray doesn’t gyrate as much as he used to, but he still has a wiggle in his hips and a powerful, muscular tone.

Big Ears can be a raucous and dissonant event at times, but centering that were a couple of performances, one by the ambient band SUSS and another by the trio of pianist Vijay Iyer who was born in America of Indian parents, bassist and electronic musician Shahzad Ismaily who was also born in America but of Pakistani parents, and singer Arooj Aftab from Pakistan. They’ve gotten together on an album of improvisations in ambient modes called Love in Exile and they entranced the audience with their spacious, largely improvised music that hovered on the edges of meditation and passion. Ismaily provided a bottom drone on electric bass while Iyer orchestrated a lot of the framing with sometimes quietly lyrical forays. Atop it all, Aftab seemed to be tapping some dark well of the soul as she sang couplets in Urdu. Her voice was deep and resonant as she sculptured a sound that didn’t seem quite part of this world.

Iyer, Aftab and Ismaily created their world in the elegant space of the Tennessee Theatre, but the ambient group SUSS brought their quieting, dark mood to the event and did it in a fairly inappropriate venue, the Jig & Reel. It’s a very cool club with a nice bar and a backroom performance area that was one of the smallest venues at the festival. SUSS could of filled it in their two shows 6 times over. They call themselves Ambient-Country, but despite the pedal steel of Jonathan Gregg, they are way more ambient these days, as slow motion melodies coursed out like searchlights wandering the skies. I wished I could’ve been sitting for this one.

SUSS - Live at Big Ears 2023

Suss at Reel & Jig Big Ears 2023, Bob Holmes, Jonathan Gregg, Pat Irwin

Gyan Riley, who was part of many ensembles at the festival, did his own set at St. John’s Cathedral. His pieces are also complex and delicate. Beginning with solo acoustic works, he deftly slid into looper mode and then added an exotic electric instrument called Sonica, a lute-shaped synthesizer that created glissando motifs by sliding up the fretboard. He then brought out an electric guitarist and bassist, Devendra Banhart and Shahzad Ismailly, and staying acoustic, sang some vocal songs that I hadn’t heard him do before. They were pleasant tunes, but in need of a better singer to sell them. It made it an A-Side/B-Side performance.

King Britt - Live at Big Ears 2023

King Britt at The Standard, Big Ears 2023

There was a lot of on-the-edge electronic music at the festival. The first set of Big Ears that I caught was King Britt. Originally from Philadelphia, the now tenured professor from the University of California San Diego has always had a cerebral approach to electronics. Joined by cellist Seth Parker Woods and bassoonist Joy Guidry, Britt sat behind a table loaded with electronic devices that he manipulated into abstract sonic textures. This particular project is called Moksha Black. It was a purely improvised performance that was more free-jazz meets atonal classical music. For the last number he was joined by drummer Tyshawn Sorey, giving the music a bit of a free jazz pulse.

On the less abstract side was Caterina Barbieri, an Italian musician creating a minimalist brand of analog electronic music, equally inspired by Terry Riley (Gyan Riley’s father btw) and EDM. It was one of the few shows that started late, 45 minutes, but it wasn’t her fault and it was worth the wait. Hitting the stage wearing armory on her right shoulder and arm that made her look like a Borg, she cranked out interwoven cycles of electronic sound, with a beautifully warm, but still cutting, timbral palette. Themes continually evolved out of her spinning maze of sound as she waved her arms theatrically above her gear. That is, when I could see her. She had the most ineffective use of smoke and lights I’ve ever Caterina Barbieri - Live at Big Ears 2023seen. White smoke would billow out, completely obscuring Barbieri from sight. Usually, lights would be continually projected through them, but the minimal moving headlights came on at arbitrarily sporadic points in the show then went away leaving white clouds blanketing the stage. No matter though. The music delivered. Her set was mesmerizing and ended with a banging version of “Terminal Clock.”

Another woman in wires was Kate NV. I was surprised they placed her in the 2500 seat Civic Auditorium. She didn’t fill it by a long-shot but she drew a crowd that would’ve been too-large for most other Big Ears venues.

Kate NV playing synthesizer at Big Ears 2023

Kate NV at Knoxville Civic Auditorium, Big Ears 2023

How to describe the music of Russian born Kate Shilonosova? It’s as if a J-Pop group met Morton Subotnick (whose two sets I regretfully missed). Her songs were like fractured pop, often sounding like a broken music box as she deployed a variety of sounds, including animal noises, bird songs and saxophones. She’d often dance in ecstatic, goofy, no-one-is-watching fashion. But everyone was, because she was so mesmerizing and dressed for the part. With thick blonde hair sporting a pink accent it was pulled atop her head like something Sandy Olsson would’ve sported in Grease, except for the pink accent. She wore a school girl’s outfit with black blazer, knee-high black socks and a short skirt. The only thing that violated school regulations was the midriff-baring pink top. Her music was at times minimalistic, sequencer-driven or grooving on dance beats, with long instrumental stretches between songs that were like chants, her voice often triggering effects and sounds.

Oneohtrix Point Never was something of a surprise. I had expected a more splintered, angular sound from him, but this was a kinetic, driving set that often reached grandiose heights. I hesitate to call this one a performance, though, as Daniel Lopatin, who is OPN, stood behind what looked like a computer screen and didn’t seem to be playing anything. But the music and psychedelic videos made up for it.

In my preview of Big Ears I said that to some, it might seem like a jazz festival, and I think I could have easily woven a path that would’ve been just that. Besides artists already mentioned, I caught Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. They cut a somber mood as Lovano has mellowed out considerably over the years.

Christian McBride’s New Jawn wasn’t so new but they were a vibrant, if fairly standard, post-bop band. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was in an angular mood for most of his set, with compositions that sounded more atonal classical than jazz much of the time. His pianist, Erika Dahl was resplendent in forays that were at times lyrical and others joyfully abstract as she pounded out clusters and waves of notes.

Exploding Star Orchestra at Knoxville Civic Auditorium, Big Ears 2023 Craig Taborn, Rob Mazurek, Mary Halvorson, Damon Locks

One of the few disappointments at Big Ears was the Exploding Star Orchestra. Led by trumpeter Rob Mazurek, they seemed to have everything going for them, with veteran musicians including pianist Craig Taborn, cellist Tomeka Reid and guitarist (and omnipresence at Big Ears) Mary Halvorson. Their music was born of electric Miles Davis with a tilt toward the British sound of post-Robert Wyatt Soft Machine, but they seemed to rarely rise up beyond endless noodling and vamping.

The Sun Ra Arkestra never disappoints. They descended once again on the festival calling out to the “People of planet Earth.” Dressed in full regalia of spangled tunics and strange hats, they blew through free jazz workouts as well as Fletcher Henderson tunes. 98-year-old leader Marshall Allen can still whip out the pneumatic alto solos, and without a keyboard player, he also brought the space bleeps with his electronic wind instruments.

Varispeed with Dave Ruder, Alex Boone, Jaydon Headrick

I skipped most of the rock acts including Ricky Lee Jones, Calexico and Iron & Wine, but did catch several songs of Los Lobos, who seemed to be going through the motions.

I missed so many potentially great acts at Big Ears, among them the live street performances of Robert Ashley‘s neo-beat opera, Perfect Lives, Private Parts. Performed by Varispeed, they played at different locations represented by the different sections of the opera so “The Supermarket” was performed at Mast General Store and “The Park” was staged at Krutch Park. I caught about 15 minutes of “The Bank,” performed at the US Bank, and it was wild and exhilarating, especially with the somewhat Frank Zappa-like narration of Dave Ruder. I wish I’d seen more.

Unless you can navigate the multiverse, you’ll never see even a fraction of what you’d like to see at Big Ears. But the 2023 edition was everything it says it is, and more.

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