As advertised, Big Ears 2019 was a guitar extravaganza. My wife Liz and I were able to see Bill Frisell, David Torn, Mary Halvorson, Anthony Pirog, and Rafiq Bhatia, some of them multiple times, as well as other, non-guitar improvising legends and newcomers. Once again, venues like the Tennessee Theater, The Bijou Theater, The Standard, and The Mill and the Mine offered stellar sound quality and sight lines, and the local food was fabulous.
We lost an hour on the trip from Nashville to Knoxville, but arrived in time to get our wristbands and head over to the opening ceremonies at the small but delightful Knoxville Museum of Art. After some drinks, and delicious hors d’oeuvres by a local charcuterie, director Ashley Capps welcomed press and VIPs to this year’s festival.
The Festival is still small enough that we were able to spot Capps at many of the shows we attended, and the downtown area is compact enough that we ran into him on the street, where I thanked him for a great festival and especially for bringing Rafiq Bahtia to it. He replied, “I tried to get him last year”—an indication of how tuned into the “new” this man is.
After a quick dinner at the barbeque place next to the Standard, we witnessed the telepathy that the duo of Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan has developed over the last couple of years. Opening with Monk’s “Misterioso,” the two of them operated like one wide-range instrument. An interlude, during which Frisell made music with ring modulation, an Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, delay manipulation, and looping led into Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Save The Last Dance For Me,” wringing every possible harmonic, rhythmic and melodic variation out of that simple tune. Ultimately, we felt that standing behind hundreds of people in this large venue didn’t provide us with the intimate experience the music warranted. For that, we will listen at home to their two brilliant live ECM records that recall the great Jim Hall Ron Carter duo records—also recorded live.
We left to catch the Nashville Ballet performing Lucy Negro Redux at the Tennessee Theater. Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi ably provided Americana-style music on banjo, percussion, violin, and vocals, while the dancers danced and Caroline Randall Williams recited poetry. The work is based on the theory that the second half of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets is about a black woman. While an interesting conceit, it ran out of steam by the end of the first act, by which time we felt it had turned into more racial/feminist polemic than art. We decided to depart for the hotel at intermission to rest up for a full Friday.
Friday’s first show was back to the Standard for Rafiq Bhatia.Bhatia’s music doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard, while sounding like everything you’ve ever heard. Jazz, electronica, hip-hop, Indian, gospel, rock, all seamlessly invade his compositions without being distinctly audible as references.
Last year’s Breaking English will go down with works like David Torn’s Clouds About Mercury, Eivind Aarset’s Electronique Noire, and Stian Westerhus’ Pitch Black Star Spangled, as an instant modern guitar classic. The surprise was how well this music translated to the stage. I suppose it should have been obvious that a guitarist as adept with pedals and laptop as Bhatia, joined by a drummer who has mastered the art of triggering extraneous sounds from his kit, along with a bassist sporting pedals and playing keys would be able to reproduce the essence of the record. In fact, the live version was even more powerful, thanks to augmentation by lights, an abstract video backdrop, and the Standard’s terrific sound system, which permitted the prerequisite rearranging of internal organs by the sub-woofers. The show by Bhatia & Co. set a standard (no pun intended) that the rest of the festival would be hard-pressed to equal let alone surpass.
A quick lunch of the best hot dogs in the world at Curious Dog, then off to Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl at the Mill & Mine. Halvorson has carved out a unique voice on the instrument through her mix of a semi-acoustic tone, and whammy-like pitch shifts created by using an expression pedal to manipulate the time parameter of a Line 6 DL-4 delay. For this performance she sometimes expanded those effects with long delays and looping to make it appear as if multiple guitarists were playing at once. Extending her core trio with terrific singer Amirtha Kidambi and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, Halvorson presented a series of compositions notable for their angular twists and complexity. It is a tribute to the reading skills of her ensemble that they navigated the notes flawlessly, but the sight of them reading behind the music stands added to the distance of already intellectual tunes, making for an experience that felt less compelling than it might have.
On the other end of the spectrum was free improv legend Evan Parker’s performance at The Bijou. Parker, percussionists Mark Nauseef and Paul Lytton, bassist Adam Linson, reed player Ned Rothenberg, and laptop sampler Matt Wright, created emotional moods from thin air through deep listening and self imposed dynamics. This was free improvisation at its best, and who better than progenitors Parker and Lytton to provide it.
We walked over to the church where Ralph Towner was set to play at 5:30, but found the lines too daunting, and, with the Frisell meets Torn experience starting in an hour and a half, we felt it behooved us to try to get some food and then get on line for that.
ABSINT was a group assembled for the festival by Tim Berne to include singer/instrumentalist Aurora Nealand and himself, with Bill Frisell and David Torn playing together for the first time in the thirty some years they have known each other. It would have been hard for the expectations around the meeting of two modern guitar titans to have been higher.
Any free improvisation situation is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. As it turned out, the net effect was Torn and Berne sounding like their group Sun of Goldfinger, minus drummer Ches Smith, while Frisell searched for ways in, seeming most in sync with Nealand. Rumor has it Torn had some gear damaged before the show, and he did seem to be finding his way. Still, there were enough musical moments to leave us hoping for a future duo outing by these two modern guitar masters.
By the time they cleared the house and let us back in after his soundcheck, Torn had obviously made enough peace with his working gear to turn in the kind of inspiring solo performance that has earned him his reputation as a sonic wizard. Short loops joined whammy bar manipulation, ambient washes, and bursts of noise in a tapestry of aural majesty—a fitting way for us to end day two’s music.
Drinks and snacks with friends at the terrific new Greek tapas and cocktails place Kefi, led to a late Friday night that precluded seeing Columbia Icefield with Mary Halvorson and Susan Alcorn at noon Saturday. We did make it into town in time to see Bahtia’s drummer Ian Chang do a 2:30 solo show at the Museum of Art. Though not guitar, the performance provided food for thought about how a single instrument can create an orchestra and an interesting show by triggering sound samples and lights…. Hmmm.
Back to the Standard for Halvorson and Thumbscrew—basically the guitarist and the Code Girl rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Despite more chart reading, this stripped down trio presented a more visceral experience, with variety supplied by shared compositional duties.
Next up, the Messthetics, featuring Anthony Pirog and the rhythm section from Fugazi. This is a supergroup; not famous musicians joining together for financial reasons and occasionally artistic ones, but in the sense of creating a superior musical experience.
Punk, pop, ambient, jazz, rock, and surf are all represented, the latter especially poignant in light of the recent death of Dick Dale. At times Pirog’s rapid-fire tremolo picking channeled the late surf guitar legend’s style and manic energy. Overall, the band presented a show that was epic and cinematic, loud but dynamic. Pirog met the rhythm section’s punk energy with his own type of drive, which included precision playing and pedal choreography, somehow making it all work.
Mary Halvorson sat in for the encore, blending in beautifully to the joyful noise of this amazing band.
We ran over to the Tennessee Theater just in time to catch the last few numbers by DeJohnette, Coltrane, Garrison. Too bad, as Garrison had a laptop on stage and it would have been nice to hear how he used it.
We first caught a little bit of the ECM panel, moderated by Nate Chinen, with David Torn, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lake, and Nik Bartsch. Chinen asked incisive questions eliciting informative and thought-provoking answers about what it is like being an ECM recording artist.
Then it was over to the Bijou for Richard Thompson’s Killed In Action, a song cycle about World War I performed in conjunction with the Knoxville Symphony Strings. The music focused largely on Thompson as a singer and songwriter, with occasional guitar accompaniment. The British legend delivered affecting vocals and demonstrated an amazing ability to turn the literal words from soldier’s diaries into tunes. Unfortunately, the string arrangements were largely unadventurous, only rarely hinting at the horrors of war that the words described.
It was great to hear Frisell and Robert’s chemistry again as they performed a tune from their time together in the early quartet, but this foursome largely focused on the singing of Haden and the lovely harmonies provided by Roberts and baritone guitarist Bergman. The vocal blend was excellent on tunes like Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” and the old chestnut, “On The Street Where You Live.” The group ended with “We Shall Overcome,” a song that has unfortunately become all too relevant recently. It was a great show that proved mellow doesn’t have to be dull.
Some terrific tacos and tequila at Chivo and it was time for Sun of Goldfinger. I had seen this band when it was first starting out in New York about ten years ago. Hearing the self-titled record a decade later, I was amazed at how Torn turned their free improv excursions into a cohesive, dynamic work of art. The show at the Standard started with a sonic onslaught that, ten minutes later, showed no signs of letting up. Relegated to standing, aural and physical fatigue set in so we decided to get started on the drive back to Nashville.
With all the hype leading up to this year’s Big Ears, I was afraid it would turn out to be the kind of zoo that generally keeps me away from festivals. I was pleased to find that the promoters managed to put on the same kind of controlled shows that had impressed me the previous year. That said, the attendance has obviously and deservedly grown, and keeping the venues from being overcrowded meant that some people couldn’t get in. I have no idea how they will manage to continue growing while retaining the comfort and intimate feeling that makes the weekend so appealing, but I fervently hope they figure it out.
As for modern guitar, this year lived up to the hype in spades. Seeing Torn and Frisell was a treat regardless of its degree of success; witnessing the bond that exists between Frisell and Morgan was yet another example of how the guitarist continually finds simpatico players to help him make musical magic, and his Harmony quartet showcased his prodigious accompaniment skills.
On top of that, it was heartening to see a new generation of guitarists, each with a voice of his and her own, launching ambitious projects. Mary Halvorson is on the way to creating her own language on the instrument, through sounds and musical ideas. Though it may not resonate with me as much as some others, I fully recognize that it is no mean feat. It was a joy to see Rafiq Bhatia present a totally different grammar; one filled with dynamics, texture, and power to rival the giant EDM shows, but with the harmonic sophistication of jazz, and more than a modicum of soul. Anthony Pirog proved that the guitar hero is not dead, but alive and well in another young artist unfettered by genre boundaries or tradition.
From the evidence of the attendance at these shows (including the one featuring the relatively unknown Bhatia), modern guitar is thriving and growing in popularity. And once again, Big Ears proved you can put on the kind of festival a grownup can enjoy—one without camping or Porta-Potties.