Big Ears Day 4: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bill Frisell, Wadada Leo Smith close out festival with performances of their contributions to jazz history

Big Ears Festival’s 10th annual musical celebration wrapped up its four-day run in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Sunday with anticipated performances from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Bill Frisell ended his string of performances throughout the weekend with his group, Bill Frisell’s Harmony, in an afternoon set at the Mill and Mine. Taking the stage with Frisell were singer Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman on baritone guitar. The group played a series of calming, harmonic songs that bridged the gap between improvised jazz and folk music.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith took the great stage of the Tennessee Theater with flutist Dwight Anders and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton to perform his three-part suite, “Divine Love.” The suite was composed of free-flowing instrumentation that challenged structure and stood the test of time from its original 1978 recording.

Rising singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane showcased songs from his 2018 album, “Book of Travelers,” which he described as the musical product of his effort to better understand the American landscape after the 2016 election. His piano ballads reflected on his time spent riding nearly nine thousand miles on trains and getting to know the lives of others. His songs, “Baltimore” and “Model Trains,” displayed the emotional drive of his poignant songwriting in a set that was as humorous as it was sentimental.

The festival was closed off with an immense performance from the avant-garde jazz collective, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The ensemble’s performance was a celebration of its 50th year as a group. Though many of the group’s original members have since passed away, this iteration of the Ensemble was still led by its stoic bandleader, Roscoe Mitchell, who has continued to embody the improvised free-jazz movement that he helped start in the late ‘60s.

The group brought a raucous energy to the Tennessee Theater that bordered between carefully constructed and completely unhinged. Through their performance, this year’s Big Ears Festival was closed with the same spirit that has attracted its festival-goers for the last ten years—music that’s non-conforming, experimental and wholly unique.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email

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