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Big Ears Festival 2017 Recap

ACME Big Ears 2017

"I think the unexpected nature (of Knoxville) gives the festival a certain relief that it wouldn't have if it was where everybody expects it to be."

- Ashley Capps, Founder/Artistic Director, Big Ears Festival

When most people think of Knoxville - if they think of this east Tennessee city of less than 200,000 at all - they might think of the University of Tennessee, which has its main campus in town, or of the surrounding Appalachians, which gave us both moonshine and Dolly Parton. But, for some time now, Knoxville has transcended its relative obscurity with its outsized cultural offerings: it has its own orchestra, its own art museum, and in the past year alone, more than two dozen restaurants and breweries have opened downtown.

But, if there's one thing that's put Knoxville on the international map more than anything over the past few years, it's the Big Ears Festival, the ear-bending festival of new and adventurous music that just wrapped up its sixth edition this past weekend. This was my third consecutive Big Ears, and everything seemed both bigger and more accessible this year. Indeed, it was difficult to walk anywhere in downtown Knoxville without feeling that you were in the middle of a musical theme park. I mean, where else can you bounce from jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, to Meredith Monk, to Wilco? And, that was just on Friday.  

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Winter Jazzfest Marathon 2017: Friday Night

by Dan Lehner

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There was a sense of freshness in the air as the first night of the Winter Jazz Fest Marathon kicked off on Friday. The first real snowfall blanketed car windows, the first few days of 2017 were helping ease away the emotional drag of 2016 and the ever-expanding roster of artists and venues participating in the WJF lineup reminded us that there are people working hard and creating challenging, joyous and diverse music and plenty of people who want to see it happen. WJF also helped us prepared politically and emotionally for the coming Trump years by declaring a theme of social justice that permeated through its literature and testimonials from its artists.

Dayme Arocena made an explicit plea for US audiences to engage with the next generation of young Cuban musicians during her band's set at Le Poisson Rouge, and they more than backed that case up with their performance. Arocena's music has an old history - its imbued with a rich variety of Afro-Cuban musics from both the island and the motherland - but her conception also has a 21st century attitude, with vocoders, odd-meters and Arocena's stuttering vocal effects punctuating the rhumba phrasing. Ever the ambassador for her country's traditions, Arocena graciously showed the audience the diversity of Cuba's dance music landscape through guajira and cha-cha stylings, powered by her alluring and rich vocal style.

In an example of parallel cultural journeying, New York actually has its own version of the Cuban traditional music, interpreted by its numerous salsa bands like Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who played at the New School Friday night. SHO's modus operandi is relatively humble - they have a old school Nuyorican sound and just try (and succeed) to swing as hard as they can - but they're not without their specialties. Their music tastefully inserted jazz chordal substitutions a la Eddie Palmieri and the vocal harmonies between Carlos Canscante, Jeremy Bosch and Marco Bermudez was rich and meaty. Bosch also had an added surprise up his sleeve, getting into a flute battle with Mitch Frohman, in which Frohman was surprisingly evenly matched.

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Preview: Salt Cathedral | Annie Hart | Slow Club at Le Poisson Rouge

Mark this Thursday (11/10) on your calendar for a healthy serving of moody, synth-induced sounds at Le Poisson RougeSalt Cathedral is a Futurepop male/female duo hailing from Colombia whose music "has a strange, evocative bite even as it mines a lot of familiar-sounding sources" (Pitchfork). Juliana Ronderos’ voice is gentle and romantic, contrasting the sharpness of the chords that flow along with her.

Annie Hart’s name might sound familiar if you’ve ever given the trio Au Revoir Simone a listen. While her sound isn't that much different than the synthpop we all love from ARS, Annie’s solo songs definitely have more of a rock ‘n’ roll streak through them.

Finally, Charles Watson & Rebecca Taylor have been creating easy listening jams as Slow Club since 2008, but laced with sounds that evoke darker, heavier emotions. A great example is “Where the Light Gets Lost,” off of their most recent album, One Day This Won’t Matter Anymore.

Tickets are $20 and are available at the LPR box office or online.