Some 27 years ago I made my first voyage to Victoriaville Quebec, all because Fred Frith was performing and I was realizing his importance to music I most appreciated. At that Festival I saw the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. Led by bassist Barry Guy, this group included many amazing musicians including Evan Parker. It really seemed like about the best thing in the world at the time. For 10 years, Big Ears Music Festival has been bringing some uncompromising sounds to the city of Knoxville, TN. It can evoke the feeling of one of the best things in the world as well.
For 10 years, Big Ears Music Festival has been bringing uncompromising sounds to the city of Knoxville, TN.
Over my lifetime, there have been, on occasion some lineups that lured me to attend a specific event and this year at Big Ears was no exception. When I learned This is Not This Heat and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were performing, I knew I had to attend. Also, Wadada Leo Smith and Alvin Lucier are among my top tier of artists who performed at this year’s Big Ears. To be perfectly honest, we planned our trip to Big Ears to focus on the weekend due to work schedules and regrettably, missed some wonderful performances that are ‘top tier’ as well. However, with the exception of some mentions of a few missed artists, this article will focus on the great experiences we had a the festival and some observations.
So, one might ask, ‘what makes Big Ears special among all of the music festivals all over the world?’ One special aspect of Big Ears this year was the music from the ECM record label. This is one of the biggest record labels in the world in improvised music and this year they celebrate their 50th anniversary. Of ECM artists hailing from the US, this festival represented all, if not most of those I hold in high regard. And the international contingent was fairly strong as well, even though Alexander von Schlippenbach (who recorded Improvisations on the Japo subsidiary label) ultimately had to cancel his performance due to Visa difficulty. Nonetheless, I had previously seen the Schlippenbach trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton in San Francisco when they performed a few concerts prior to a concert at the aforementioned FIMAV in Victoriaville.
Another thing that makes Big Ears special is the surprise component. Though the festival isn’t actually very fluid in scheduling, numerous last minute concerts, including additional sets added by artists and discussions make this festival worth attending. While it is really quite unique and beautiful, some difficult choices need to be made at times and some artists that audience members would like to see must ultimately be deferred or performances chopped in half by concert hopping. We chose to see as much of each individual performance as possible as difficult as it was to watch other opportunities vanish into thin air. One such performance was that of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire. I was able to accept not seeing Fire because I had once seen Gustafsson in the 1998 in Chapel Hill with his AALY trio and Ken Vandermark. We chose instead to catch Mercury Rev’s Clear Light Ensemble performing improvised work for the Film ‘A Carnival of Souls’ featuring founders Jonathon Donahue and Grasshopper along with Steve Shelley, Tim Berne, James Sclavunous, Ben Neill, Mimi Goesse, and Jesse Chandler.
Another thing that makes Big Ears stand apart is the inclusion of emerging artists at the festival. Noteworthy artists from the modern scene included Makaya McCraven, Shabaka Hutchings performing in both The Comet is Coming and in Sons of Kemet, and Mary Halvorson performing both as band leader in her band Code Girl and in Columbia Icefield.
Carl Stone and Alvin Lucier both performed at the Knoxville Museum of Art. They also are two of the world’s most famous electronic musicians. Joan La Barbara performed both a piece with Lucier’s group as well as one of her classic works Voice is the original instrument.
Stephen O’Malley from the band Sunn O)))) had a few performances with his group KTL as well as performing in Lucier’s Ever Present Orchestra.
Also taking me back to a time around 27 years ago were the performances by Spiritualized and Mercury Rev at this year’s festival. After Spacemen 3 disbanded, who wasn’t a huge fan of Spiritualized in the early 90’s.
So, in a sense, there are several competing genres at the festival, vying for attention. This year’s festival strengthened the genre of Americana/Folk as a part of the fabric. I can say it isn’t usually what floats my boat, but with some exceptions. With Rhiannon Giddens performing early on Thursday (and competing directly with Spiritualized on Friday) it was wonderful to see her busking along with MC Demeanor in the Market Square. This might be a good thing to bring up, where is the hip hop? Last year at Big Ears featured Kid Koala’s Nufonia must fall while the music of hip hop was noticably absent from this year’s lineup. Other than someone noticing I wore a Hieroglyphics hat, Demeanor was it. I can still remember when Steve Coleman and the Five Elements performed at FIMAV. It almost seemed controversial among some attendees who claimed that hip hop wasn’t “Musique Actuel”. Well, I can imagine that tastes have evolved over the past 20 some years and what would be better at a future Big Ears than Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra and Deltron 3030? I would only hope they wouldn’t compete against one another at the same time slot!!!
So, are there things the festival could improve upon as well? Sure. I’ll speak first here about the fare. The main concert hall was the Mill and the Mine for us. There was a tent outside of the hall with snacks and drinks, so you could stay checked into the venue, however they didn’t have any vegan options. We tried the Bijou bistro and while it had a few vegan options, they were fairly bland. As meat heavy as San Francisco is in it’s fare, if you ever attend Outside Lands, or any type of festival in the bay, they have vegan food included for attendees. Now, I know there were two food trucks with vegan fare on Gay St., but after they only made one of our two meals and had no beverages at all to sell we decided not to go back. There was also the taco shop that served tacos that didn’t have cheese listed as an ingredient with cheese. We finally took some time off from the festival and drove outside of the downtown area to a grocery store called Three Rivers Market. This market would be a great candidate to invite to the festival to cater delicious foods for all concert goers (hint, hint). While food may not sound like the thing to get picky about, it ties right in with the other area that is challenging about Big Ears. that it’s tiring. A body needs sustenance to trot around to all of the different venues.
I do believe the festival has tried in some ways to address some issues of fatigue and food by providing seats and the food tent at the Mill and the Mine (along with a huge array of coctails for sale many including Red Bull). Also, the seating and priority status VIP tickets can help stave off the brutal pace of the festival. However, many of the improvised festivals I’ve attended including MiMi Festival in Arles, France, Musique Action in Nancy, France and FIMAV in Victoriaville are able to pull off a splash while giving concert goers perhaps a little space from the festival to settle into the town as well. While some may argue this makes a festival less exciting, it also means concert goers who paid for a festival or day pass aren’t standing outside while a concert is occurring because the venue reached capacity.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad I was able to attend this year’s festival. Pretty amazing overall. I never thought I would get to see the music of one of my favorite bands This Heat live. I also never imagined seeing the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their performance was astounding. With so many artists in town too, it was interesting be in the hotel lobby and to say hello to Roscoe Mitchell as they wowed at seeing someone wearing the shirts they sold as well as meeting Mark Nauseef for the first time and talking about his album with David Torn, Jack Bruce and Miroslav Tadic. Talking to Jeff Parker about his last tour with Tortoise was really special. This was an experience I won’t soon forget. It is an experience we may very well repeat. Knoxville is a great town for such a festival as Big Ears. If you get the chance to go, it’s hard to imagine regretting it.
There are moments when life presents us with musical experiences that warrant braving the wet and cold and sitting in a room of strangers (or future friends as I like to think of it). As for myself, moments like this can be few and far between. Stumbling on the listing of a band getting set to perform the 1960 masterpiece ‘We insist!’ by Max Roach brought back memories of attending a concert in what was then a new town to me in that of Raleigh, the year of 1990. At the time, I had just moved to Raleigh to attend NC State. The week I moved there was a record show at the Daniel Boone Village in Hillborough. I had frequented the record shows for the past year or two and went to a booth of two folks I new as aquaintances. When I picked up a couple of James Blood Ulmer records from their booth they informed me Mr. Ulmer would be perfoming later that night in Durham. I went to the concert and it spoke to me on so many levels. As an alum of Ornette Coleman’s band, his music had a certain appeal and I actually had only one record by him at the time. So, then I was on the verge of discovery.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, I found myself again in a fairly new town to me and while internet has certainly makes finding concerts much easier, you still need to look for them. With this in mind I stumbled across a concert slated for February 23rd 2019 that seemed like it could’ve just as easily not been discovered by me. An interpretation of one of the best jazz records of its time, ‘We Insist!’ is replete with stellar musicians, song writing and politics of race and desegregation.
For me, going to see a great jazz show is equally as exciting as most people might find their favorite modern concert to be. It can be more thrilling than walking into a hip hop or rock experience to know someone or some jazz group is who’s talented and going to deliver. What’s more, this particular concert featured music written by one of North Carolina’s most heralded jazz musicians along with singer Oscar Brown Jr. Undoubtedly this band is one capable to deliver such a crisp and fiery show.
It can be more thrilling than walking into a hip hop or rock experience to know of someone or some jazz group who’s is talented and going to deliver.
Much like the aforementioned Mr. Ulmer moves me on several levels, so does the music of Max Roach, albeit differently. Max Roach had the jazz life of a legendary status, performing with Mingus, Parker and Ellington as well as transitioning to contemporary jazz artists such as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. ‘We insist!’ is ground breaking in that it shares a social commentary on the year 1960 in a way others had thought art perhaps might better play it safe and avoid. Unlike modern social media explorations, Roach, along with his wife Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins and Booker Little made commentary that is rare in that it had no need to research it’s user or track data to find out more about us, it was and is a form of art that mirrored life of that moment.
Brooklyn based singer/flutist Melanie Charles released two recordings, one self released in 2010 as well as her 2017 recording ‘The Girl With the Green Shoes’. She has alsorecorded with brittish virtual progers Gorillaz. New York-Philadelphia based Fresh Cut Orchestra are led by Josh Lawrence on Trumpet, Jason Fraticelli on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums. Commissioned by Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the group transcribed the music by listening to the original recording. Support was provided by UNC Asheville, NC Arts Council and Come Hear North Carolina. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center is a wonderful music venue. In addition to bringing life to the college that existed nearly 30 minutes from Asheville from 1933-1957, Ms Charles and the Fresh Cut Orchestrea added their own perspectives as guitarist Tim Conley added treatments and samples to create a new interpretation. On the final song of the album Tears for Johannesburg a serious interplay took place between the samples Conley treated as the call and Marshall then interpreted on drums.
Kikagaku Moyo performing live at the Mothlight 10/20/18
The most recent record, Masana Temples, released this year is a follow up to last year’s brilliant Stone Garden, also released by Guru Guru Brain. The group was formed in 2012 by guitarist Tomouki Katsurada (also known as Zura) and drummer Go Kurosawa. The group also contains sitar player Ryu Kurosawa, guitarist Daoul Popal and bass player Kotsuguy. The group is on their 2nd tour of the US. Don’t miss this opportunity to see an emerging group with something to say.
Japanese psychedelic band Kikagaku Moyo
Originally formed in 2012, from a duo that would busk the streets of Tokyo, they added the other members prior to recording their initial self titled release, which featured singer/ theramin player Angie Gotopo. The band members were involved in the creation of Guru Guru Brain records. In addition to the six full length and e.p. recordings the group has released in their 6 years together they also put out a split 7″s with Moon Duo and Kinski with Mokoto Kawabata from the aforementioned Acid Mother’s Temple & Melting Paraiso U.F.O.
I’ve been spending alot of time lately thinking about sharing music in a way I never have and so the radio station Strangeblood Radio was included in the Radionomy lineup. It’s my hope that many of the US and international artists I’ve followed over the years get introduced to new audiences. I hope you will take the time to stop by from time to time. The starting format will be to release 4 hour shows weekly. You will be able to hear repeats during the week from last week’s show (among others). Get some!
A small batch record company from Minneapolis has been quietly making its mark on the creative new musical world for 18 years. Founded by James Lindbloom, the label draws its name from a musical piece by late composer John Cage by the same name. The composition by Cage sought to bring literature (Namely that of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) to performance. The record label has released 46 recordings to date featuring Sun Ra, Joe McPhee, Steve Lacy, Pauline Oliveros and Daniel Carter to name a few.
James Lindbloom and the late Pauline Oliveros
According to Lindbloom, most of the label’s releases are limited to around 500 copies while the titles for Sun Ra and a few other titles had as many as 1000 to 1500 copies. To date, Roaratorio has released 3 recordings by late accordionist Pauline Oliveros, who developed the musical vocabulary referred to as Deep Listening and taught at UCSD and Mills College. The most recent release featuring Oliveros was as a member of the Thollem Cline trio, entitled Molecular Affinity. Thollem/Cline trio is conceptually like drummer Samm Bennett and late Cellist Tom Cora’s band Third Person, a “trio” that included the third artist as a guest in performances. Pianist Thollem McDonas and Guitarist Nels Cline’s (Wilco, Nels Cline Singers) previous collaborations as a trio include the Gowanus Session featuring William Parker on Bass and Radical Empathy featuring Michael Wimberly on drums.
On Roaratorio, Oliveros can be heard with Argentinian electronic group Reynols on the 2003 release, The Minexcio Connection: Live at the Rosendale Cafe and on her 2011 release To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe In Recognition of their Desperation. The latter contains 3 recordings from 1970 and 1977 with a large ensemble.
Cover art for Molecular Affinity includes Coleochaete green algae, by Fernán Federici
Released one month after Ms. Oliveros passing, Molecular Affinity contains two improvised compositions, each approximately 19 minutes in length. Each of the pieces are works showcasing the trio’s breadth of talents, with all 3 musicians drawing both distinction and commonality. Oliveros can make her instument sound electronic as it entwines with piano and electronic effects, including guitar and dobro making the giving the recording the feeling of a soundtrack. The recording has moments sounding like a work out of time, Molecular Affinity also has an air reminscent of recordings from contemporary composers on the Nonesuch record label back in it’s heyday of the late sixties and seventies. For fans of Oliveros or improvised music in general this recording isn’t to be missed. LP/Digital copies of Molecular Affinity are available individually from Roaratorio Records. The 3 Thollem/Cline trio recordings were also released this year as part of a digital only format compilation earlier in 2018.
Argentenian Composer Nelson Gastaldi recorded cassette symphonies
Argentenian composer Nelson Gastaldi (1932-2009) has what is known to be a treasure trove of recordings, however to date Symphony #3: Siddhartha Gautama O El Poder De La Nada is the only recording to be officially released. The recording was discussed on the podcast #37 for Free Form Freakout. Interestingly, in the podcast, Lindbloom discusses how he did “these home recordings, symphonies as he called them–, were made through a crude overdubbing setup– He would record them on a boom box, play them back on a separate deck while recording another layer of the piece, then play back the new cassette while playing along to it once again, and so on until the piece was complete.” It’s really surprising to imagine someone merging musical expression and composition in such a manner and having a result that is so indescribable. The recording was composed and recorded between 1972 and 1997. This is an essential recording for collectors of contemporary electronic composition.
“A” Trio Live at Nickelsdorf album cover
Another direction of musical exploration on Roaratorio is Lebanese based The A Trio, who have a number of recordings including a 2018 release with the UK based renowned experimental band AMM. Their music is fairly indescribable as on listens to the 40+ minute improvisation and would likely have difficulty in knowing what instruments were being played (without looking at the cover). The group has also collaborated with Alan Bishop from the Sun City Girls on their 2015 recording Burj Al Imam. Trumpet player Mazen Kerbaj utilizes his instrument not for melodic means, but instead at times it sounds like a new form of sound has been created, in a way like the first time one hears Tuvan throat singing and ponders that it really is vocals. Their style on Live at Nickelsdorf can be at times percussive, sounding like springs and whirligigs bouncing with a motor puttering along while high pitches overtake the moment sounding like a violin bow is being used on a cymbal.
Roaratorio is much more than the label that releases vinyl artifacts by Sun Ra and Joe McPhee’s awesomeness. But, don’t forget that they’re that too. Lindbloom has created one of the strongest labels in existence today and if you haven’t already done so, you should challenge your ears to check a few of their releases out.
Jeb Bishop and Dan Ruccia performing at Revolve Studios in Asheville, NC
Trombonist Jeb Bishop and Violist Dan Ruccia recently teamed up on a tour through the mid Atlantic states of the US to perform music from their 2017 release Scratch Slice Jag released on Out and Gone records. Bishop grew up in Raleigh, NC where he was involved in the punk rock band Stillborn Christians and the Alternative band Angels of Epsitemology. After moving to Chicago Bishop became a regular in Ken Vandermark’s bands as well as performed with Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet, Alexander von Schippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra and many other crucial members of the creative new music world. Ruccia hails from Durham and has recorded many of his own compositions, in addition to being at DJ at Duke University’s WXDU radio station in his spare time.
The two artists recently performed at the Revolve Sound Series in Asheville. They met when Bishop was living in the triangle a few years ago. Although Bishop has since moved to Boston, Massachusetts, both he and Ruccia colaborated on Scratch Slice Jag and the album was released to critical acclaim from the Free Jazz blog.
Shane Parish and Tashi Dorji at Revolve Studios 6/29/2018
Asheville based guitarists Shane Parish and Tashi Dorji performed an opening set of improvised music then later joined Bishop and Ruccia for an improvised quartet performance to close the evening. Parish is a member in both Aleuchatistas and Dirge Duo as well as a collaborator with many artists. Dorji has performed with a number of musicians highly regarded in the improvised music realm including Sir Richard Bishop, Tyler Damon, Bill Orcutt, Joe McPhee and Mette Rasmussen. Dorji has recently released a duo record with Rasmussen on the Montreal based label Feeding Tube records. Parish and Dorji have released a recording together as well in 2016 on the MIE label entitled Expecting. In their duo Parish sounds at times like crafty guitarist Robert Fripp while Dorji shreds in a style similar to that of Fred Frith. The duos and quartet performances were both enjoyable but the duos were clearly the most coherent and strongest moments of the night.