Playing Changes at Big Ears


Earlier this spring I attended the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first time. (It won't be my last.) There was so much to love about this experience, which was immersive and inspiring and often thrilling. I wrote about the festival for NPR Music, focusing on its heavier-than-usual contingent of jazz — veritable icons like Roscoe Mitchell and Milford Graves; mid-career explorers like Nels Cline; ascendent pacesetters like Jenny Scheinman and Jason Moran. On the final day of the fest, I saw a great big standing-room crowd go deep on the music of the Tyshawn Sorey Trio. Then I headed over to catch a bit of Rostam, who would have been headlining a cavernous space in any major city. Here he was playing to a small crowd — a lot smaller than the one that had gathered for Tyshawn. Such is the delirious upside-down reality of Big Ears.

One point I tried to make in my piece was an observation implicitly tied to Playing Changes:

Increasingly, improvising artists across the style spectrum are accessing multiple vocabularies, reconciling divergent strategies, bringing other disciplines into the frame. This coalescence was also a hallmark of last summer’s Ojai Music Festival, programmed by pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Like that inspiring event, which featured a few of the same artists, this year’s Big Ears felt right in tune with an emergent, exhilarating frontier. I see this not only as a hopeful turn in the festival’s model of inclusion but also as an indicator of present-day permissions around jazz’s state of the art.

No idea whether Big Ears will feature so many improvisers on the next edition of the festival. But it seems more than possible. Whatever happens, I'm going to do everything in my power to be there.