Big Ears Day 3: Nils Frahm, Jack DeJohnette, Béla Fleck bring jazz, electronic, afro-beat to the stage

Historic jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette playing at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, TN, March 23, 2019 (Photo by Hayden Goodridge / MTSU Sidelines)

Photos and story by Hayden Goodridge / Contributing Writer

Big Ears Festival continued into the weekend with a jam-packed day of music Saturday, filling theaters, museums and bars alike across the city of Knoxville.

The day was highlighted by striking performances by modern-classical composer Nils Frahm, historic jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette and banjo player and bandleader Béla Fleck.

Nils Frahm treated his audience at the filled Tennessee Theatre to an awe-inspiring set of keyboard madness. With over 10 various keyboards and synthesizers filling the stage, Frahm went to work—hopping back and forth across his setup to engineer sonically dense arrangements. Frahm seamlessly bridged the gap between classical piano and modern electronic dance music, with impressive pieces under each style.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, one of the architects of modern jazz music, teamed up with Ravi Coltrane—son of John Coltrane—and Matt Garrison—son of bassist Jimmy Garrison—for a historic performance that all at once displayed the past, present and future of jazz. DeJohnette is known in jazz history for playing drums on Miles Davis’ classic jazz-fusion records “Bitches Brew” and “On The Corner,” and his free-jazz drumming style has cemented his place in history. Through playing with the sons of his former band-members, DeJohnette’s impressive performance had an importance that rose above the impressive music they played.

Béla Fleck gave an intimate solo performance in St. John’s Cathedral that mesmerized attendees with technical bajo playing. Fleck has been known for decades to have underscored the serious art of banjo playing, and his lively performance gave proof to the instrument’s beauty.

Carl Stone composed a soothing ambient set in the contemporary gallery of the Knoxville Museum of Art. Audience members gathered in a circle around Stone’s workstation in the center of the gallery and allowed the ebb and flow of dynamic ambient noises to fill their ears.

The Messthetics brought a brilliant post-punk energy to the festival with their set at The Standard. The trio is composed of two former members of Fugazi—drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally—and experimental jazz guitarist Anthony Pirog. The group’s instrumental set had focused chaos that emanated punk intensity and improvisation all at once.

Sons of Kemet closed out the night at The Mill and Mine with their unique style of energetic afrobeat jazz. The group was composed of an unconventional lineup—saxophone, tuba, and two drummers—but the band’s stage chemistry and aggressive playing-style made them one of the festival’s most unforgettable acts.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email

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