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ECM At Big Ears: A Boundless Label Meets A Broadminded Festival, on Jazz Night

Eli Johnson
Courtesy of Big Ears Festival

At one point during the final stretch of this year's Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., you could have pried yourself away from a distortion-jacked Sun of Goldfinger show to join a clutch of fans hurrying over to see The Art Ensemble of Chicago. In making that calculation (a typical one, for Big Ears), you'd have been weighing two wildly different experiences with one notable thing in common: Both groups have an affiliation with the sonically adventurous label ECM Records.

ECM is observing its 50th anniversary this year and its largest celebration took place at Big Ears, where artists from its roster played some 20 concerts. Jazz Night in America's intrepid team caught about half of these — including a gorgeous solo bass recital by Larry Grenadier and a coolly mesmerizing dual-piano concert by Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer.

In this episode of our show, we bring you along to three of the very best performance we heard, each illuminating a different facet of ECM. We'll begin with composer, pianist and NEA Jazz Master Carla Bley, leading her chamber-like trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Next up is an agile post-bop quartet led by Israeli-born trumpeter Avishai Cohen. And we end by locking into the matrix of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, whose leader is a Swiss pianist and composer specializing in what he calls "zen-funk."

Each of these compelling artists has insights on the broadminded legacy of ECM, and the meticulous vision of its founder, Manfred Eicher. We'll hear from them — and from the brain behind Big Ears, producer Ashley Capps, who says there has always been an ECM presence in Knoxville, if you just knew where to look.

Set List

  • "Utviklingssang" (Carla Bley)
  • "Sex with Birds" (Carla Bley)
  • "Life and Death" (Avishai Cohen)
  • "Will I Die Miss? Will I Die?" (Avishai Cohen)
  • "Module 46" (Nik Bärtsch)
  • "Module 36" (Nik Bärtsch)


  • Carla Bley Trio: Carla Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Andy Sheppard, saxophone
  • Avishai Cohen Quartet: Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Marcus Gilmore, drums; Barak Mori, bass; Fabian Almazan, piano
  • Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Nik Bärtsch, piano; Sha, bass/contrabass clarinet; Kaspar Rast, drums; Thomy Jordi, bass


Producers: Sarah Geledi and Nate Chinen; Production Assistant: Sarah Kerson; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey; Executive Producers: Amy Niles, Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundman; Recording Engineer: Rob Macomber