The Curmudgeon: Nonesuch Records and Big Ears Festival

Music Features The Curmudgeon
The Curmudgeon: Nonesuch Records and Big Ears Festival

Nonesuch Records decided to celebrate its 60th birthday at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last month. That made a lot of sense, because both the label and the event share not only an aesthetic but also a curatorial process. The 15 Nonesuch artists who performed at Big Ears included groundbreaking classical acts such as the Kronos Quartet and Caroline Shaw, cutting-edge jazz musicians such as Mary Halvorson and Brad Mehldau and innovative Americana artists such as Rhiannon Giddens and Molly Tuttle.

That mix of genres has also distinguished Big Ears since it was founded in 2009. Both the record company and the festival aren’t pretending that genres don’t matter, but they both insist that a knowledge of and an engagement with a particular music’s history and vocabulary can lead to very personal, quite unprecedented art. Moreover, they act as if each such transformation of the past into the future has a similar quality, no matter which tradition is being reconsidered. Giddens’ remaking of old-time string-band music shares something fundamental with Mehldau’s remaking of jazz piano.

How does one recognize that special something? By refusing to rely on committees or A&R departments and instead trusting one person to make all the crucial artistic choices. For Big Ears, that person has been founder Ashley Capps. For Nonesuch, that person has been each of the company’s four presidents: Teresa “Tracy” Sterne (1964-1979) Keith Holzman (1979-1984), Robert Hurwitz (1984-2016) and David Bither (2017-present). You may not agree with all their decisions, but you are getting a definite viewpoint. That’s why both the festival and the label have strong personalities in a business where the edges are usually rounded off.

“One thing the company has done over the decades is break down the hierarchy in music,” says Hurwitz over the phone, “to put artists who come from all genres on the same level. A lot of us came from classical music, but the first time we went into jazz, minimalist composers, Brazilian artists, pop and world, we went in without the prejudice that one genre is better than another. Sometimes, companies who came out of jazz or classical lower their standards and turn crossover music into a kind of smooth jazz. We never did that.”

Mehldau, the 53-year-old pianist who has released all his solo albums since 2003 on Nonesuch, personifies this non-hierarchical approach to music. In his solo-piano performance at Big Ears, he demonstrated how one can take musical material from anywhere and create new melodies and new harmonic contexts on the fly. In one medley, he segued logically from Gabriel Fauré’s Nocturne No. 7 into the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It worked because the clouds of notes that had gathered around Faure’s classical theme were easily wafted in the direction of John Lennon’s rock-ballad hook.

Although Mehldau’s two shows at Big Ears were entirely instrumental, the pianist has developed a distinctive approach based on the song form. He plays not like a vocalist’s accompanist but like the singer and the pianist fused together. Each hand fingers out unhurried arpeggios that keep the vocal melody, the chordal harmony and all the variations readily audible to the listener. It’s as if you’re hearing the whole number—verse, chorus and bridge—with the words erased but not the vocal line.

In Knoxville, Mehldau applied this technique to songs by Elliott Smith, Beck, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney. The next afternoon, also at the Tennessee Theatre, the gorgeously restored old movie palace, Mehldau performed in an unaccompanied duo with bassist Christian McBride, the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival. For that show the sources were more often jazz standards associated with Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Wes Montgomery and the rhythms swung more. But Mehldau’s singular methodology remained the same. Mehldau’s determination to draw from the classical, pop and jazz worlds and transmute those raw ingredients into his own sound is emblematic of both Nonesuch Records and the Big Ears Festival.

“This sensibility isn’t defined by a style,” Bither argues, “but by a reach, a reach across borders. If you can get an Emmylou Harris fan to listen to Caroline Shaw, they’re likely to hear something that feels similarly compelling, that they might want to hear again, even if the form of the music is different. We’re a label that’s not going to object if Brad Mehldau wants to explore classical music, folk music or electronica. “With few exceptions, by the time we sign an audience, we have a pretty good sense of what that artist has in mind. The kind of commitment we make. Alynda Segarra, lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff, has said, ‘The most important thing I get from Nonesuch is the freedom and support to make the record I feel I have to make.’”

Hurray for the Riff Raff came into Big Ears riding the momentum of The Past Is Still Alive, one of the spring’s most critically acclaimed albums. The quartet’s live show at the Mill & the Mine, Knoxville’s biggest rock club, justified the hype, though it also suggested that much of the press about the record missed the point. The politicized lyrics were not the breakthrough—Segarra has always written them—but rather the propulsive, catchy folk-rock that made those words more persuasive. Their music now feels less like an obligation and more like a pleasure.

Rhiannon Giddens, also a Nonesuch artist, played three shows over the four-day festival: once leading her own band, once leading the Silk Road Ensemble and once in a trio with McBride and Francesco Turrisi. The trio set demonstrated the broad range of her interests and her skills, ranging from the bawdy blues of her own “Nobody Gets Me like You Do” to the 18th century opera of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, from the hard-core country of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” to the heartbreak balladry of the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Dos Gardenias.”

It works not only because she has magnificent vocal chops but also because she knows each of these traditions inside out. She, like many performers, complains about genres, but she actually salutes genres by studying and then mastering each one’s history and vocabulary. She makes a Patsy Cline song sound like honky-tonk and a Buena Vista Social Club number sound like Cuban son—and not some mushy, untethered compromise between the two. “Rhiannon, Chris Thile, all of them have gone through those steps,” says Hurwitz. “If you want to be a master carpenter, you have to learn how to make what came before you before you make something of your own. Chick Corea had to know how to play Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk before he became Chick Corea. They didn’t start from scratch; they stood on the shoulders of those who came before. That still holds true today. There are a lot of people who play incredibly well but aren’t that interesting. The ones who are interesting fell in love with something else and used that to do something new.”

This was also obvious in Giddens’ set with the Silk Road Ensemble, the international troupe that she inherited from cellist Yo Yo Ma. The 10-piece band presented a show titled American Railroad, which weaves together the many cultures who built and/or were displaced by the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1870: African-Americans, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Irish and more. Once again, each genre was respected for its own character and never watered down to a lowest common denominator. Giddens narrated the story, played a little banjo and sang a lot, her strong soprano ringing out over instruments. And the musicians were virtuosos, playing with such emotion and command that even those unfamiliar with their instruments could be impressed.

The Kronos Quartet presented a program called Five Decades of Music at the Knoxville Civic Center. The chamber-music group has actually been playing under that name for 61 years—and has been recording for 55 years, 33 of them exclusively on the Nonesuch label. For most of the past 45 years, three-fourths of the ensemble has been remarkably stable: first violinist and founder David Harrington, second violinist John Sherba and cellist Hank Dutt. But this summer Sherba and Dutt are retiring, so this was their final Big Ears appearance, which added an extra frisson to the afternoon.

As usual, they demonstrated their commitment to playing new music and their willingness to dig into the emphatic rhythms and occasional dissonance the material calls for. On this day, the composers included Antonio Haskell’s adaptation of Mahalia Jackson’s hymns and Peni Chandra Rini’s adaptation on Indonesian folklore as well as Moondog’s “Choo Choo Lullaby” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” But they also did Steve Reich’s thrilling “Triple Quartet” and Philip Glass’s “Closing Theme from Mishima.” Reich and Glass followed in Kronos’s footsteps to work with Nonesuch at various times. It’s worth remembering that Nonesuch got started as a classical label, first marketing budget editions of canonical pieces, then showcasing electronic musicians such as Beaver & Krause and such modernist composers as Morton Subotnick, Elliott Carter and George Crumb. These latter made severe, theoretical music that appealed to academics and certain critics much more than the classical audience.

“There was a time when mid-late-20th century European contemporary music became very academic,” says Hurwitz, “and Kronos stayed on the other side of that divide. They were interested in Terry Riley, Bartok, music that had more of a link to tonal harmony and to a pulse, and that connected them to the minimalism in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so important to the evolution of this music. They were open not only to modern music but were keenly interested in the music being composed at that moment, and that didn’t happen a lot at that time.” “When Bob took over Nonesuch,” Bither adds, “there was a very happy coincidence of the music of Steve and Phil and Kronos beginning to emerge as a counter to that very academic music. The string quartet is the most traditional music around, and yet here was this band that didn’t dress appropriately and played new music almost entirely. Flash ahead decades later, and there are all kinds of ensembles doing all kinds of new music. And Kronos opened that door.”

What’s remarkable about the Big Ears Festival is that it can fill large halls for the Kronos Quartet as easily as it does for Giddens, McBride or the cutting-edge composer Henry Threadgill—and it’s often the same people in each venue. Like Nonesuch, Big Ears has built a relationship with an audience that will cross genre boundaries as long as the artists are rooted in a past tradition and at the same time reaching for something new. As long as that stretch is there, certain listeners will try it all. Obviously, this is a limited audience that will never compete with the Beyonce or Taylor Swift tours. But Nonesuch and Big Ears have been smart enough to recognize that limitation and have deliberately stayed small—even if that means sometimes turning down artists who would be a good fit. It keeps overhead low and personal contact high.

It’s that human scale that makes Big Ears such an enjoyable experience. You can park once (for free if you leave after 8 pm) and easily walk to each of the 16 venues. This is not a cow-pasture festival; it’s in Knoxville’s handsome, historic downtown——so the restaurants, bars, stores and parks between the venues are all open. There was a lot more to this year’s festival than the 15 Nonesuch artists. The 80-year-old, legendary jazz composer Henry Threadgill performed six times, each time with different material played by a different line-up. Most pleasurable was the Very Very Circus, an octet that included two electric guitars, two trombones, two sousaphones, a drummer and a saxophonist, but not the composer himself.

The group had a strong New Orleans carnival feel with its buoyant melodies and high-stepping grooves, but it also pushed these elements past the boundary of familiarity into sonic surprise. Threadgill was with the packed-in audience and rushed up at the end to salute the musicians. More revealing was a rarely heard trio featuring Threadgill on alto sax and flute, Vijay Iyer on piano, and Dafnis Prieto on drums. Each member came from a different current within the jazz tradition—avant-garde, modern and Cuban respectively—and each contributed new compositions. It was a treat to hear each man respond to the other two’s writing and search for some common ground. They found it again and again.

It was a great weekend for the double bass. McBride’s muscular manhandling of the upright instrument provided a harmonic anchor and forward motion not only to his sets with Mehlau and Giddens but also to his set with his own new quintet. Dave Holland, best known for his early stints with Miles Davis and Sam Rivers, was at his very best with a quartet that included pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and drummer Nasheet Waits. The give-and-take between Holland and Waits was especially exciting, proving just how nimble and tuneful their bottom-register instruments can be. Bassist Larry Grenadier did something similar as part of the Charles Lloyd Quartet who played music from the group’s terrific new album, The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow. Pianist Jason Moran played not only with Lloyd but also as the leader of Jason Moran & the Harlem Hellfighters.

This group—a piano trio (including Waits) and seven horns—celebrated the life and music of James Reece Europe, the legendary African-American composer who flourished just before the age of recording. Moran, dressed in a film-noir trench coat over a World War I uniform, provided narration, a black-and-white slide show and original music to frame Europe’s music, which the ensemble played with gusto. It wasn’t all one triumph after another. Artists with admirable track records, such as Herbie Hancock, Leyla McCalla and Sam Amidon, turned in disappointing sets. But that’s the gamble you take with any festival—and Big Ears has a better batting average than any.

“What is it about this festival?” Bither asks. “Why does it feel that way? Yes, it’s a friendly atmosphere, but it’s mostly Ashley’s taste and his particular vision of music as something whose boundaries can stretch in many directions. Whatever he picks, it’s always something worth listening to, even if you end up not liking it. He defies categorization the way we do at Nonesuch. But the one thing that unites all these seeming diverse acts is a kind of ambition and intent and quality. The artists we choose have something original to say.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin