I was lucky enough to be able to attend two days of the 2018 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, and it was a deeply overwhelming experience, full of positivity, good vibes, and unbelievably challenging and inspiring music. Here's a brief report on what I saw. I took all these pictures; yes, they suck but there are plenty of places where you can see better ones.
Friday started of with a major implosion of space and time in my mind, with Roscoe Mitchell Trio Five: Vincent Davis on drums and Junius Paul on bass. I could quibble a little with the standard inclusion of bass and drum solos--they seemed to be there mainly to give Roscoe a chance to rest--but when he was playing, all three were on fire: high, high free energy in the finest, classic sense of that music. I was not familiar with Junius Paul, but Vincent Davis I knew from the excellent trio album No Side Effects. Much of this set was similar to that record: fiery, out, intense explosions of energy from one of the masters.
Well, that set alone would have been enough to last me a year, but there was much more to come. After catching most of a solo set from Ikue Mori (loud and intriguing), we had to split to catch Rocket Science.
A quartet organized by trumpeter Peter Allen, the main draw for me was sax giant Evan Parker. They played a brilliant hour-long improvisation, and I loved how Parker and Allen played off each other. Rarely subtle, the electronics punctuation and sound manipulation of Sam Pluta added a layer of noise to the proceedings that worked most of the time, but I felt he ran out of ideas halfway through. Not true for Craig Taborn, whose brilliant command of the piano varied between quiet, subtle ruminations to aggressive counter-attentions to the electronics. This was my first time seeing all these folks, and they just blew me away, Taborn especially.
From one giant to another: the majestic Milford Graves doing a solo set in a big theatre setting at the Bijou. Anything I say about this set will sound hokey, but it was truly transcendent and life-affirming. Graves expostulated about life, his approach to the drums, his approach to life, in a thoroughly engaging and sometime hilarious manner. He talked about applying martial arts movements and actions to his drumming, and he demonstrated on the drums. He vocalized in... Japanese? American Indian? gibberish? ( I heard "big ears" in there somewhere.) And he did things on and with the drums that I've never seen or imagined before. It was truly amazing.
The evening ended with an Evan Parker solo performance in a church with gorgeous acoustics. Another mind-blowing stunner of a set! This was my favorite of the three contexts I saw Parker participate in--amazing dexterity, breath control, multiphonics, throat singing, interstellar space-out virtuosity. Check out this sample.
The next day got jump started with a high-energy duo from skronk-samba guitarist Arto Lindsay and powerhouse Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (this was to make up for my wimping out and missing The Thing's show late Friday night!). Wake up!
After that, it was back over to another church with great acoustics for a stellar set from the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Hard to see, since all the band member were on the same level as the audience (here you can just see Craig Taborn at the piano and Ikue Mori on laptop), but wonderful to listen to. This was a beautiful, wide-ranging improvisation, with excellent contributions from all involved, especially Taborn on piano and Ned Rothenberg on bass clarinet and flute.
I didn't get in line in time to see the duet performance of Milford Graves with pianist Jason Moran, dammit. I did manage to get in for most of the encore, and what I heard was a fiery Cecil Taylor-ish maelstrom of energy. Here's a short video clip. I loved Moran's playing when I saw with Anthony Braxton at the Kennedy Center; he should take it out more often, he fits right in!
The final show I saw, and the absolute highlight of the entire festival was Roscoe Mitchell Trios back at the Bijou. Oh my gawd. Similar to the structure of Bells for the South Side, Mitchell conducted and played through a series of sub-set trios with the large band he had assembled, in differnt configurations, before finishing with a heart-stopping crescendo climax with the entire group--and what a group. Craig Taborn again--on piano and electronics--was simply outstanding, and in his short statement on electronics said more than any other single electronic artist I saw the whole festival. The Sound Ensemble rhythm section of Tani Tabbal and Jaribu Shahid, plus percussionist Ches Smith and Chicago drummer Mike Reed, plus Tyshawn Sorey on drums, percussion, piano, and toy piano, plus James Fei on reeds and electronics and Hugh Ragin on trumpet! Damn! I am not doing this music justice--I hope it was recorded. Here are a couple of video snippets to whet your appetite.