American composer, saxophonist and producer John Zorn is one of the featured artists at the 2022 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee next week.

Big Ears Festival promises big acts beyond the mainstream

Big Ears Festival
March 24-27, 2022
Multiple venues
Knoxville, TN

Jon Ross | 17 MAR 2022

The Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, is one of those not-so-hidden musical gems. Starting in 2009, Big Ears organizers have brought inventive lineups of forward-leaning jazz, classical, pop, and myriad musical styles from marginal, but never mainstream, genres to early-spring Tennessee.

The 2022 version, which is the first since 2019 due to the coronavirus, begins March 24 and runs through the late evening on March 27.

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Atlanta musicians have recently had at least a small tie to what is arguably the most exciting and rewarding festival nearby. In 2019, saxophonist Dr. Dwight Andrews, a music theory and African American music professor at Emory, made the trip to reunite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton to revisit Smith’s seminal ECM album, Divine Love. The group was missing the bassist from that 1979 record, the late Charlie Haden, but was able to reimagine the tunes as part of a festival-wide ECM celebration. The year before, Atlanta group Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel took the trip north to perform at the festival. The Edgewood Sax Trio – alto saxophonist Jeff Crompton, tenor Ben Davis and baritone Bill Nittler – were to perform with Fred Lane & His Disheveled Monkeybiters in 2020, but the pandemic had other plans.

This year’s Atlanta representatives are W8ING4UFOs, an ensemble led by Bill Taft with Brian Halloran on cello, Will Fratesi on percussion, and Billy Fields on keyboards. Guitarist Sean Dunn and violist Katie Butler round out the group. The band will play the Pilot Light on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

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If you take the short trip up to Knoxville – which, depending on the heaviness of your lead foot and the number of food breaks along the way, takes between three and four hours – check out these must-see acts each day in addition to W8ING4UFOs.

• Thursday

Kronos Quartet
Tennessee Amphitheatre, 4:30 p.m.

The beauty of Big Ears is that listeners can see musicians in a variety of settings over the four-day event. Kronos Quartet, a group that has become a mainstay in Knoxville, begins the 2022 festival with a short concert in an outdoor venue. The group is set to perform works by Clint Mansell, Aftab Darvishi, and Michael Gordon. Among the group’s other events at the festival is a tribute to Terry Riley on Saturday.

Preservation Hall Brass & East Tennessee Bluegrass Association
Jig and Reel, starting at 7 p.m.

In 2011, the Preservation Hall Brass Band linked up with bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his group to record the genre-bending American Legacies. In the same spirit, Preservation Hall joins Zach Morgan (banjo), Evie Andrus (fiddle), and Rusty Holloway (bass) for a series of concerts. Leader Ben Yaffee secured a South Arts Jazz Road Creative Residencies Grant for the project to “explore connections bluegrass and New Orleans jazz.”

Old City PAC, 9 p.m.

In 2019, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire visited the festival as part of Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl. Now, he’s in Knoxville under his own banner, playing in various settings. Trefoil’s two sets on the event’s opening day are an inauguration of his new trio with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Akinmusire helps close the festival on Sunday with a set by his quartet, a band that last convened on record for On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment.

• Friday

Craig Taborn Trio
with Tomeka Reid & Ches Smith
Bijou Theatre, 1 p.m.

Pianist Craig Taborn gave a memorable duet show with pianist Vijay Iyer at Big Ears in 2019, which furthered a collaboration explored on record in ECM’s The Transitory Poems. This time around, Taborn is joined by the phenomenal cellist Tomeka Reid and the indefatigable drummer Ches Smith. Big Ears promises “a groove-oriented set of unguessable possibilities.” Whatever that means, I’m in.

Bang on a Can All-Stars
First Baptist Church, 5:30

One of many Bang on a Can All-Stars shows during the weekend. This offering includes six new, 10-minute solo commissions born from the pandemic. Included are John Hollenbeck’s “Persuasion,” performed by David Cossin; Aeryn Jade Santillan’s “disconnect,” performed by clarinetist Ken Thomson; and “Fainting is Down, Whooshing Is Up” by Nick Dunston, performed by bassist Robert Black.

Duet Behavior: Meredith Monk & John Hollenbeck
St. John’s Cathedral, 8 p.m.


Wa-lie-oh, from Songs from the Hill (1975-1976)
Click Song #1, from Light Songs (1988)
Insect Descending, from Songs from the Hill (1975-1976)
Click Song #1 (instrumental), from Light Songs (1988)
Madwoman’s Vision, from Book of Days (1988)
Little Breath Motor 2 (2000)
May the Dark Ignorance of Sentient Beings Be Dispelled (2022)
Simple Sorrow (2020)
Harp and Bow (1968/2020)
Happy Woman, from Cellular Songs (2017)

Monk also performs the live premiere of Memory Game with Bang on a Can All-stars at 3:30 on Saturday in Tennessee Theatre.

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• Saturday

Ches Smith’s We All Break
Tennessee Theatre, 1 p.m.

Brian Blade
Jig & Reel, 5 p.m.

Drummer Brian Blade has been part of memorable Atlanta concerts throughout the years. He performed in Wayne Shorter’s rhythm section at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University in 2014. He came to Clayton State’s Spivey Hall a year later to perform with that backing group under the Children of the Light banner. This Big Ears show shines a light on a different Blade as he picks up an acoustic guitar and performs songs written for 2009’s “Mama Rosa.”

Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die
The Standard, 9 p.m.

• Sunday

Hanif Abdurraqib
Mill & Mine, 1 p.m.

Months later, I still haven’t processed the importance of Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest collection of essays, “A Little Devil in America.” It was one of my favorite books of 2021, for sure, so I’m looking forward to seeing him at Big Ears this year. Conversations with artists and other readings are slated to happen throughout the festival, but this is one that can’t be missed.

Odeon Pope and Immanuel Wilkins
The Standard, 4:15

One of the highlights of a festival packed with highlights is a chance to see the exchange between Pope and Wilkins, an alto saxophonist who recently released what will be one of the best albums of the year. This video snippet [Twitter] of Pope and Wilkins, taken last year, speaks for itself. The two are joined at Big Ears by drummer Kresten Osgood.

John Zorn’s New Masada Quartet
Bijou Theatre, 9 p.m.

John Zorn plays an outsized role at this year’s festival, appearing in or overseeing 9 or more concerts across the event; the Bijou Theatre on Saturday and Sunday is basically dedicated to his performances. Sunday starts with a Stephen Gosling recital of the solo piano works Zorn composed for “18 Studies from the Later Sketchbook of J.M.W. Turner” and ends with two sets from his New Masada Quartet, which features Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder, and Kenny Wollesen. 

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Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.