A Percussion Orgy in Tennessee
March 24 – March 27, 2022
After two years of pandemic silence, the Big Ears Festival came roaring back in March. Hordes of musicians carpetbagged Knoxville’s sleepy downtown for a long weekend of experiment and extravagance.
Patti Smith played. So did Kim Gordon, Sparks, Animal Collective. But the real joy came from the improvisers, many of them from the New York scene reductively called “jazz,” who turned these four days into a triumphant cross pollination.
Hustling between the two beautiful historic theaters where the main shows took place, you’d have seen guitarists, pianists, bassists, cellists, and singers teleporting into each other’s ensembles, and even hopping into queues to join the crowds. Much of the personality of this delightful tangle came from its drummers.
Brian Blade, who plays with merciless precision at a whisper level, matched the quiet power of guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. They are masters of a sort of hot-potato restraint; Blade throws the whole of his slight frame into the music without ever going bang, drawing potential energy into the room. In closing, the trio wafted note by note into a familiar hook. Just when it became clear that, yes, they’d latched onto Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” my neighbor collapsed into sobs.
Further release came during the trio’s other set, this time with pianist Jason Moran. Assembled at the last minute to honor their comrade Ron Miles, the trumpeter who, days prior, had died of blood cancer, this highly evolved group fluttered through Miles’s venturesome, smiling tunes, demanding the utmost from each other. When Blade backed off the kit, pinging cymbal edges and scumbling the snare with his brushes, Moran jumped into his wake, cracking tasteful notes of percussion on the high keys. Their synergy brought closure to “March,” a querying little piece believed to be Miles’s last.
In a trio with pianist Craig Taborn, Ches Smith echoed synth atmospheres with a bowed vibraphone, counterpoised treble passages on a timpano, and matched Taborn’s grumbling left hand by producing vibrations on his drum skins (with a rubber ball, or his licked fingertip) akin to the human voice. Devoted to texture, Smith coerced every possible soundwave from his setup. He also grooved with aggression, and reached a trance state the next day in his own ensemble, a ten-person blend of Haitian vodou and modal jazz musicians. There was call and response from an ecstatic French chorus while Smith barraged with three other drummers, one of whom, the grand Daniel Brevil, is his co-composer. While they wobbled from sweet to sinister, it was the latter mood that claimed Friday evening, as Smith laid waste to the town square in a sweaty impromptu with Ceramic Dog, the trio led by Marc Ribot.
Ribot’s guitar is pointy. During his own improvisation with drummer Andrew Cyrille, he’d listen to his partner, lock into an abstract drum phrase, and turn it into a bluesy backbeat. The dynamic grew nimbler when Cyrille met up with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who bounced a steady stream of squeaks and drawls off Cyrille’s high-pitched skins. The drummer brought a loose spontaneity to his tightly composed “drummer doodles,” as he called them, one of which had been passed orally from John Coltrane to drummer Rashied Ali, then to Cyrille in a trio with Milford Graves. Drummer and horn conversed quietly, and this allowed a real sense of humor to creep in. For minutes on end, Cyrille dropped his sticks to palm his cheeks and open mouth—a facial bongo.
Sō Percussion brought the most obvious sense of, well, percussion to the weekend. With singer and composer Caroline Shaw, the extravagant quartet worked best when they pared down to one or two elements behind her crystalline voice. Their simple backing on marimba stole the show in a rendition of ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love on Me” built on Shaw’s monosyllables and eight hushed mallets. Singer and composer Nathalie Joachim played on that strength of simplicity. On stage with the group the next day, she’d repeat a banal phrase (“Maybe I’ll take a nap,” or, “I’m motivated”), then she’d sweeten it with a little synthesizer, and zap an electronic loop of it back to the group, who duly battered it with a cluster of small idiophones.
Meredith Monk conducted with her voice, too. Her evening with percussionist John Hollenbeck demonstrated how empathically attuned two artists can be. She deployed the full possibilities of the human larynx, and Hollenbeck enlivened them with textures of all kinds. The acoustics of the darkened Episcopal chapel, as both understood, were an instrument in themselves. During her soft prayer “Simple Sorrow,” a baby cooed in the back pew: no one doubted it was off script with the vocalist on stage. Nor could anyone doubt the candor of Monk’s latest piece—inspired by a Ukranian backdrop that few performers failed to acknowledge that weekend— entitled “May the Dark Ignorance of Sentient Beings Be Dispelled.” Hollenbeck lurked in the shadows on the far end of the apse behind her, plunging a Brazilian cuíca in an uncanny replica of the grunts and sighs Monk released between incantations of the title.
For this reviewer, it was a startling thought experiment on distance and the limits of empathy. If Bacharach and Hal David penned the peace ballad as it should be, this might have been the peace ballad as it really is—synaptically aware, hopeful, helpless.