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Big Ears Festival unveils its 2024 lineup, a crowd beyond category

Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd performing at the 2023 Big Ears Festival, with Bill Frisell on guitar.
Christian Stewart
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Big Ears
Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd performing at the 2023 Big Ears Festival, with Bill Frisell on guitar.

Big Ears has announced a starry lineup for its 2024 festival, which will unfold in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., over four jam-packed days next spring. Encompassing nearly 200 events across more than a dozen venues from March 21 through 24, the fest will find returning heroes in new configurations, along with notable first-timers and some curated residencies. As usual, the musical compass will point in myriad directions at once, with a high concentration of composer-improvisers and creative musicians who both define and transcend their associated genre.

One such artist is Big Ears favorite Rhiannon Giddens, a folk singer and songwriter who also recently composed an opera, for which she won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music. Another would be multireedist and composer Henry Threadgill, who received that honor in 2016. Each will preside over several different musical performances — a distinction shared by the Philadelphia-born DJ and electronic artist King Britt, whose Blacktronika program will feature some 14 artists in total.

Cora Wagoner
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Big Ears

Big Ears originated as a celebration of postminimalism and other new-music provocations, and next year’s lineup will include a few artists in that general lineage, like Third Coast Percussion, Caroline Shaw and Davóne Tines. (The Scandinavian vocal group Trio Mediæval might fit the bill too, though they’ll be singing the nearly thousand-year-old songs of Hildegard von Bingen.)

But as I noted in 2018, the festival has been moving toward the progressive end of the jazz spectrum, a development underscored by the artists on this lineup. Herbie Hancock — pianist, post-bop legend, pop vanguardist — will make his first festival appearance. Unless I’m missing something, it will also be a Big Ears debut for bassist-composer Dave Holland, with his quartet. Another NEA Jazz Master, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, led his trio at this year’s festival; he’ll be back next year with his New Quartet, featuring pianist Jason Moran (who will separately present his Harlem Hellfighters band, drawing from a historically minded recent album).

The 60th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, a label whose principled eclecticism perfectly aligns with the Big Ears ideal, will occasion an array of concerts — by Giddens, Tines and Shaw as well as pianists Robin Holcomb and Brad Mehldau; rusticated futurists Sam Amidon, Yasmin Williams and Molly Tuttle; just plain futurist Laurie Anderson; composer-bandleader Darcy James Argue, with his Secret Society; and guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose back-to-back concerts were a highlight this year.

Christian McBride performing with the New Jawn at the 2023 Big Ears Festival.
Andy Feliu
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Big Ears
Christian McBride performing with the New Jawn at the 2023 Big Ears Festival.

Big Ears will also host a 70th birthday celebration for guitarist Marc Ribot, who appeared this year with The Jazz-Bins and a reunited Los Cubanos Postizos. He’ll perform next year with Ceramic Dog, among other ensembles yet to be announced.

Guitarist Julian Lage and his trio, joined by vocalist Margaret Glaspy, at the 2023 Big Ears Festival.
Billie Wheeler
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Big Ears
Guitarist Julian Lage and his trio, joined by vocalist Margaret Glaspy, at the 2023 Big Ears Festival.

Among the other notable bookings are bassist Christian McBride, whose first Big Ears experience was curtailed this year due to illness (though he managed a robust set with the New Jawn); tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and guitarist Julian Lage, each also returning for another consecutive turn, with different bands; veteran hip-hop bohemians Digable Planets; Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara; multifaceted artist and activist Samora Pinderhughes; Adrianne Lenker of the indie-folk band Big Thief; drummer-producer Kassa Overall; and Myra Melford’s Fire and Water, an all-star avant-garde group that includes cellist Tomeka Reid, who will also lead her own quartet.

Many more worthy artists can be found in the full lineup at the Big Ears website, and there are other additions to come. Festival passes will be available starting Thursday at 9 a.m. ET., at bigearsfestival.org/passes.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.