Steve Tibbetts: Natural Causes (ECM 1951)

Natural Causes

Steve Tibbetts
Natural Causes

Steve Tibbetts guitars, piano, kalimba, bouzouki
Marc Anderson percussion, steel drum, gongs
Recorded 2008 in St. Paul
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
An ECM Production

If ever there was a case for quality over quantity, Steve Tibbetts is it. A full eight years after A Man About A Horse, the Minnesotan guitarist returns with his most intimate statement yet. Alongside percussionist Marc Anderson, collaborator of over three decades, Tibbetts crafts a geography so inward-looking that it becomes a parallel world. Tibbetts originally flirted with the idea of releasing Natural Causes as one single track. Were such the case, listeners would feel no less aware of its science. Either way, its 13 tracks are not variations on a theme, even if they do play with the theme of variation. He calls them, rather, “complex little cathedrals,” building them as he does stone by stone, if not string by string. Indeed, his trusted 12-string guitar is possessed of something divine, its frets pared down to almost nothing over years of playing, so that fingers glide freely.

In a rare turn, Natural Causes is nearly all acoustic and accordingly finds Tibbetts playing piano, kalimba, and bouzouki to flesh out the palette. In addition to these, he employs a midi interface, by which he triggers samples of gongs and metal-key instruments collected during his travels. Of these, “Lakshmivana” is the fullest integration of plugged and unplugged. Told in the language of prayer—i.e., of human artifice embracing sacrality—it is an astonishing meditation that is only deepened by the story told in “Chandogra.” Here the periphery is barely noticeable. Instruments peek from the shadows, seemingly incidental, and fade at the instant of regard.

From the back-porch motif that introduces “Sitavana,” the album’s gateway, and through the burgeoning field that follows toward the solo “Threnody,” it’s obvious that Tibbetts’s attention to detail has grown like the preceding metaphor. His playing, mellifluous as ever, establishes global reach with tracks like “Padre-Yaga,” in which Anderson’s hand drumming leaves trails on the beaten plains. It develops, as does the album as a whole, in distinct cells, every pause linking the body to the less tangible impulses that make fingers ache for the fretboard.

There is an almost keening quality to Tibbetts’s portamento. “Attahasa,” for one, is a tree shedding spores. For another, “Sangchen Rolpa” wavers on the precipice of some great abyss. Across that expanse Tibbetts extends brief, tender bridges, paved with inner fire. Between them, the album’s groundswells reveal texture and breadth.

Although this is Tibbetts’s most inward-looking record, it is also his farthest reaching. His art is as honest as the landscapes that inform it, changing form and color as he moves from one riverbank to the next. Whether you choose to walk with him or listen upon him from above, just know there is a home for you here to which you may always return.

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