Review: Big Ears Festival

For years, I have been meaning to attend the Big Ears 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.

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.

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.

Cisco BradleyReview: Big Ears Festival