During the last decade, Big Ears has emerged as the United States’ preeminent festival for exploratory music. This year, the festival honors a visionary international institution that has always operated with the same outlook—ECM Records, the border-erasing label launched by producer Manfred Eicher that has now spent half a century tirelessly pursuing new frontiers and standards of excellence in jazz and classical music.
At Big Ears 2019, some 20 concerts featuring legendary artists such as The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Meredith Monk, Carla Bley and Jack DeJohnette and a new generation of torch-bearing talents like Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, Avishai Cohen, and Shai Maestro form the largest group of ECM acts under one banner in the United States (and one of the largest in the world) during this auspicious 50th year.
ECM’s ethos for the last 50 years dovetails perfectly with Big Ears’ own principles—and has from the start. The label has unwavering standards of excellence, using an unmistakable visual identity and rigorous production goals to build a redoubtable aesthetic. ECM has long served as a stable platform for its artists to venture into the unknown, too, to make music that defied the boundaries of safety and expectation within their chosen form. And their long-term relationships with artists have allowed musicians to evolve and experiment, testing new ideas in a space that welcomed them. In a decade of presenting both innovators and icons, and welcoming new projects from familiar faces, Big Ears has pursued a similar ideal. This is evident simply by looking at Big Ears’ past rosters, dotted by artists associated with ECM including Evan Parker, Steve Reich, Roscoe Mitchell, and Theo Bleckmann. This year’s ECM celebration at Big Ears is a natural continuation of that investment in and enthusiasm for what the label represents.
These concerts at Big Ears 2019 are a collective testament to the label’s enduring vitality, to the breadth and depth they have added to modern music. Many of the artists who helped shape ECM’s pioneering role in previous decades will be on hand—exquisite and exploratory guitarists Ralph Towner, Bill Frisell, and David Torn, who have all released records on ECM for decades; legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, who recorded Ruta And Daitya with Keith Jarrett in 1971; classical viola virtuoso Kim Kashkashian, who has played on three-dozen ECM titles. Wadada Leo Smith returns to perform his ECM classic Divine Love. They will be joined by projects asking new questions about the outer limits of form and genre, like pianist Nik Bärtsch’s pulsating RONIN and saxophonist Tim Berne’s radically exploratory Snakeoil. Big Ears 2019 will pull ECM’s influence across genre and generation into one long weekend, putting it into conversation with the rest of modern music throughout the entire festival.