If you are a fan of modern guitar, Knoxville, Tennessee is without doubt the place to be March 21-24, 2019. The lineup at last year’s Big Ears Festival was terrific, but this year’s crop of modern guitar mastery is even more bountiful. Get your tickets and reserve your rooms soon. For starters, Bill Frisell is performing in two contexts.
Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan
In 2017 Bill Frisell briefly returned to the label that introduced him to the world. Small Town, a recording of a 2016 duo set at the Village Vanguard with upright bassist Thomas Morgan, was his first record as a bandleader for ECM in nearly 20 years. Not yet 40, Morgan has emerged as a remarkable talent through his work alongside Tyshawn Sorey, Paul Motian, and Craig Taborn. Like the records by Jim Hall and Ron Carter, Small Town puts the listener into a room with two masters reveling in one another’s spirit and skill.
Bill Frisell And The Mesmerists Featuring Tony Scherr, Kenny Wollesen And The Films Of Bill Morrison
Frisell and Morrison realize their art works best in conversation. In recent years, the guitarist has applied his approach to multimedia projects, including the onstage photography study of Disfarmer and his score for Morrison’s poignant look at the overrun Mississippi, The Great Flood. The latter was the culmination of nearly two decades of collaboration. In 2003, Frisell scored The Mesmerist, Morrison’s edit of an artfully deteriorating print of a silent Lionel Barrymore film. At Big Ears Frisell will be joined by bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
Founded in 2011 by Lambchop veteran Ryan Norris, Coupler is Norris along with Rodrigo Avendaño and drummer Rollum Haas. This Nashville-meets-Chicago trio’s music uses the language of ambient without being ambient per se. “I prefer to think of Coupler less as a band and more as a multimedia project,” Norris has said. “Kraftwerk were fond of using the term ‘organization.’ I like that.” At Big Ears 2019, Coupler will present their live score of the 1933 silent Japanese gangster film Dragnet Girl by filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu and play a separate set of music, epitomized by the 2017 LP, Gifts from the Ebb Tide.
South African guitarist Derek Gripper’s work explores disparate styles of music from around the globe. In one concert, it is not uncommon to hear his solo guitar transcriptions of Toumani Diabaté’s kora compositions and Bach’s violin works, along with South African jazz, and avant-garde Brazilian songs.
Bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty – the rhythm force of Fugazi – have united with jazz and experimental guitarist Anthony Pirog to form an all-star trio. The result is The Messthetics, a band dedicated to the ideal of structure begetting improvisation.
Lonnie Holley And The Messthetics
Lonnie Holley made music for decades before releasing his debut album, Just Before Music, in 2012 at the age of 62. Gathering materials for his collage-based sculptures, he would sing extemporaneous lyrics, occasionally adding keyboards or percussion to tapes he mostly kept to himself. That experience allows him to improvise and adjust his tunes every night and to play with an astounding assortment of musicians. At Big Ears 2019, Holley and The Messthetics will deliver their own sets before uniting for a completely improvised collaboration.
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl
I was sad to miss her set last year with Jason Moran and Ron Miles in Bangs. Halvorson returns this time with a collection of her songs performed by her new group, Code Girl, featuring singer Amirtha Kidambi, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.
Bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara comprise Thumbscrew. In five years, Thumbscrew has turned an easy early connection into four records of conversation, ultimately becoming the core of Halvorson’s Code Girl.
Rafiq Bhatia: Breaking English
This is the show I am most excited to see. Breaking English is unique guitarist and composer Rafiq Bhatia’s electroacoustic trio, with a multimedia experience by visual artist Michael Cina and video artist Hal Lovemelt. Bhatia will be joined by Ian Chang (Son Lux, Joan As Policewoman) on electronic and acoustic drums, and Jackson Hill (Xenia Rubinos) on bass and synthesizers.
For nearly half a century, Towner has been an elite player, working with the likes of Weather Report, Gary Burton, and John Abercrombie. His own albums for ECM have been dazzling and contemplative reminders of the acoustic guitar’s versatility. NPR has noted, “Towner has developed an instantly recognizable style, one that sounds like he’s playing with all 10 fingers of both hands—conjuring melody, harmony and rhythm almost simultaneously.”
Richard Thompson: Killed In Action
Richard Thompson helped electrify folk music, with a unique style that alone would give him modern guitar cred. Later, his work with Henry Kaiser and Beefheart drummer John “Drumbo” French clinched it. In 2016, a century after World War I, Thompson unveiled a reflection on the horrors of that conflict. Backed by the string section of the Next Emerging Artists Festival, Thompson delivered the new song cycle called KIA, or “killed in action,” funded in part by the WWI Centenary Art Commissions. “The songs are based on letters, diaries, ad interviews, and in most cases, are verbatim extracts, with little attempt to make them rhyme or turn them into ‘art,’” Thompson said of the pieces. Four months after the centenary of armistice, Thompson brings KIA to Knoxville.
Sun of Goldfinger
Sun of Goldfinger stems from two decades of friendship between David Torn and Tim Berne. Ches Smith’s drumming in Snakeoil and his rock résumé impressed the guitarist, solidifying the trio. After six years, Sun of Goldfinger is finally going to release an album, but live is the way to truly experience them.