Apr 16 2019
At something of the last minute, I received an invitation by the Big Ears Festival to cover their 2019 event, and at a minute that would qualify as the last of the very last, I was able to rearrange my plans and make the commitment to travel to Knoxville, TN for the weekend.
It’s one of the very best decisions I’ve made in some time, and, without doubt, the finest music event I’ve had the fortune to attend.
Bird is the Worm and Big Ears Festival are in perfect symmetry. Ten years ago, I began focusing my time on bringing attention to the modern jazz and improvised music scenes, getting the spotlight on music that wasn’t receiving the recognition it deserved. My platform to achieve this goal has changed over time, but even greater changes are reflected in the scope of music I’ve featured. What began with an emphasis on old-school and new-school conventional jazz has evolved to writing about music forms, both composed and improvised, that have an increasingly tenuous connection to the jazz genre… even though it would get categorized as such. And, too, I’d write about non-jazz albums recorded by musicians who’d previously received attention through a write-up that fit more snugly with that jazz designation.
Ultimately, the way I introduce myself to artists and labels when I seek music for possible review is a succinct pronouncement of my site’s raison d’etre:
My name is Dave Sumner. I have a site called Bird is the Worm, which focuses on modern jazz, improvised music, and anything similar that sounds cool to my ears.
It was in the lead-up to the Best of 2017 year-end festivities when I introduced the quality of music being made by musicians of the tradition… the idea that this music’s defining characteristics is more suitably framed in the context of the musician themselves… that as the natural evolution of music, jazz and otherwise, continues unabated, the necessity to find the catch phrase that encapsulates it is no longer the imperative it once was, because it is being created by musicians who have come up through the tradition… of jazz and classical musics, and absorbing all of the other influences that particular musician has loved and learned over the course of their lives as music fans and students. The premise that here are musicians who have dedicated much of their life to learning their particular instruments, the various music theories set in orbit around the instrument, and the collaborative environment in which the language and the craft grow.
Also ten years ago, Big Ears Festival was founded, and no different than Bird is the Worm, the festival founders and organizers have focused on music that was outside the spotlight, and which represented the voices who often go unheard. Jazz and classical and spoken word and electronic innovation and ambient minimalism and avant-garde are just a few of the forms of expression scooped up in the festival’s embrace, and just as on my own site, the invited musicians are just as likely to hail from obscure locations as they are NYC or London or Paris, and they are likely to have personal experiences and backgrounds that are more representative of the diversity of the planet, measured in music and societal terms, both.
Me and Big Ears are birds of a feather.
When I initially pitched Big Ears Festival for a press pass, I began linking to write-ups of musicians appearing on the 2019 line-up. I finally had to stop at something like ten links. I could’ve gone on much longer. Throw a dart at the 2019 Festival line-up, and it’s very likely I written something about that musician on Bird is the Worm, Bandcamp, Wondering Sound, eMusic, Music is Good, AllAboutJazz, featured a track as the AllAboutJazz download of the day editor, or simply wrote about them back in the day when I was active on any number of music forums. It was as if Big Ears Festival staff went through my site exclusively to determine which musicians to invite (yes, I know that didn’t happen, but as I type this, I’m thinking pretty much all jazz etc music festivals should take that approach). Everything about this festival was in my wheelhouse, and damn it all if I wasn’t going to find a way to see every show on the bill.
The problem (a word I am stretching as far as humanly possible)… the “problem” is that Big Ears Festival has multiple events going on at all times, spread out across downtown and running anywhere from 11am through 2am. Consequently, I had to make some decisions. Painful decisions. Unless I devised a method for cloning myself while driving down I75 from Lexington, KY to Knoxville, TN, then there were going to be some shows I’d miss. Do you hear that? Carried along on the wind like the distant sound of a dying animal making its final sounds on the worldly plain? Yeah, that’s me as I think back upon the music I didn’t hear. Thank you, thank you, your sympathy is much appreciated, a gofundme account will be created shortly.
Here is all the music I saw:
- Harold Budd & Mary Lattimore & Nief-Norf in a big church
- Ralph Towner in a different big church
- Spiritualized in this cool industrial looking venue down by the railyards.
- Fire! (the trio, not the orchestra) in a sort of normal venue
- Matt Wilson Honey & Wine in a fancy theater
- Thumbscrew in the same place as Fire!
- Dejohnette/Coltrane/Garrison in a different fancy theater
- Makaya McCraven in that same venue by the railyards
- Sons of Kemet immediately following McCraven in the same joint
- Nik Bartch’s Ronin in the second fancy theater
Over the next week, we will be talking about all of this music and all of the excellent venues only vaguely alluded to above. Look, they could’ve performed all of this music is a basement office cubicle like something out of Joe vs. The Volcano, and it still would have been the best festival ever… but the venues that hosted these shows were wonderful, the kind of places where seeing and hearing special music is made all the more special by the surroundings where it all goes down. This, added to a very hip downtown Knoxville where these venues are located, it made everything fee momentous and come off as more than a music event… it was part of an overall experience that made it feel like the event was still occurring even when no music was actually being performed at any one time. It’s settings like this that make it an imperative to attend, time and time again.
And Big Ears Festival is more than just music. There is a holistic approach to art, where music is paired with museum works and film and poetry and the audience themselves, an interactive experience at many levels. There are workshops and panels, movies and radio and ambient sounds in a coffee shop to soothe that hangover.
And I will be writing about my Big Ears Festival experience… everything that seems remarkable or important or precious, and as much as I can.
So, today’s column is your intro to my Big Ears Festival 2019 experience. I hope I can transmit some of the electricity I felt all weekend long, and that it leads you to discover some new music and new places to visit, and, perhaps, the motivation to head to Knoxville yourself in 2020.
Now, let’s begin.
Next up: Off the road and surrounded by stained glass: Harold Budd, Mary Lattimore and Nief-Norf at Church Street United Methodist Church.