Enrico Rava/Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM 2746)

Enrico Rava
Fred Hersch
The Song Is You

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Fred Hersch piano
Recorded November 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 9, 2022

Pianist Fred Hersch makes his ECM debut in intimately grand fashion with maestro Enrico Rava on flugelhorn. Their meeting at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI yields some of the most effortless jazz you’ll likely hear this year. Hersch’s opening embrace eases us into Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” as if the set could open no other way, fanning expository poetry in place of lantern flame. An old-town quality prevails, navigating cobblestone streets on tiptoe yet never losing its footing.

Contrary to immediate expectation, this is followed by a free improvisation, which tempers the familiar with new shades of meaning. George Bassman’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” gets a delicate and rhythmically endearing treatment, while the title track by Jerome Kern is enigmatically transformed into a crystalline snowdrift of memory. Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” walks a fine line between dream and reality, giving way to artful abstractions that reveal two minds with lifetimes more to say, as do the originals that precede it. Whereas “Child’s Song” (Hersch) conveys innocence with a nostalgic, summery feel that harks to yesteryears, “The Trial” (Rava) renders an entanglement of spiral staircases and other modern architectural details. All of this leaves Hersch alone with “’Round Midnight,” floating into the promise of a new day, uncertain though it may be.

These musicians achieve the extraordinary by sounding like one unit without sacrificing their voices. They dance as few know how, unfolding a love letter one page at a time until only a wax seal seems appropriate to protect its contents from the sun’s bleaching touch.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: The Next Door (ECM 2759)

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
The Next Door

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2022
Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: August 26, 2022

Although Julia Hülsmann has crafted a hearty sequence of trio records for ECM, including 2017’s Sooner and Later, there has always been something even more intimate and honed about her quartet with tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff, bassist Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, as is refreshingly obvious throughout “Empty Hands,” in which Hülsmann throws notes like petals onto the waters of life to see where they might flow. As they did on this album’s predecessor, Not Far From Here, these effortlessly attuned musicians navigate her sound with familial affinity. After “Made Of Wood” deconstructs the introductory mood, a melodic breeze wafts over the keys, carrying over into “Jetzt Noch Nicht.” Taking two forms—initially as a duet with Kempendorff, later as a swinging outing for all four—it delicately offsets tracks like “Fluid,” an emblematic realization of their capabilities that rejoices in the ongoing moment.

Muellbauer contributes three originals with a more geometric approach to time and harmony. In his “Polychrome,” the piano is a wavering shadow, the saxophone a refraction of light stepping sideways past us, while in “Wasp At The Window,” a locomotive whimsy ensues. The landscape outside our window remains the same, but its description changes along the way. Hülsmann’s ability to carry so much cargo in so fine a mesh is marvelous. Kempendorff and Köbberling offer a tune apiece. The former’s “Open Up” balances emotiveness and restraint, and the latter’s “Post Post Post” is a standout for its liminal expressivity.

No Hülsmann set would be complete without an ode to the popular canon, and her reading of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” is no exception. With charming comfort, it promises hope at the end of a long and harmful tunnel that none of us saw coming.

Barre Phillips/György Kurtág jr.: Face à Face (ECM 2735)

Barre Phillips
György Kurtág jr.
Face à Face

Barre Phillips double bass
György Kurtág jr. live electronics
Recording/mixing:
September 2020 – September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
by Gérard de Haro, Manfred Eicher,
György Kurtág jr., and Barre Phillips
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 19, 2022

Although Barre Phillips and György Kurtág jr., respective virtuosos of the double bass and electronics, first collaborated by chance, one might not know it by the interlacing qualities of Face à Face. Each artist translates the other’s language in a borderless loop of communication, so that by the end we are one step closer to sharing their lexicon.

They begin in subterranean space, listening as if with the tympanal organs of a beetle to the stirrings of labyrinth makers. And maybe they never plant feet aboveground, more content to abandon the light for other forms of perception. Despite hints of the outside world in the sampled drums of “Two By Two” and the kalimba of “Across The Aisle,” our flesh always feels caught by something we cannot readily touch except in thought. Still, a feeling of tactility reigns.

The briefest excursions never reach two minutes, while the longest ones exceed only four. Among the latter, “Chosen Spindle” travels into backlit caves of memory, where seemingly infinite regressions flirt with the here and now.

Phillips is a sage of the bow, turning harmonies into shaded reveries that speak of decades leading to their emergence. In “Extended Circumstances,” he sings with mythical electricity in folds of cricket-like chatter. His pizzicato, too, moves vocally through the refractions of “Ruptured Air.” Kurtág plays his instrument (a practically biomechanical array of synthesizers and digital percussion) as a physical appendage, never letting go even when placing a shushing finger in the foreground. “Sharpen Your Eyes” is a remarkable example of his structural sensibilities, artfully suited to the bassist’s renderings of space. Their deepest integration takes form in the ironically titled “Stand Alone,” wherein mitochondrial anthems resound. Even “Forest Shouts” speaks in quiet streams of thought, each ripple extending a hand to pull us upstream to where it all began.

If asked to compare this to another album, I might nominate Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, to which this may be heard as an electronic counterpart. Both are dreams awaiting visitors.

Music Hotel: ECM Musiktage Römerbad Badenweiler 1997 (VHS)

John Surman saxophones, clarinets
Anders Jormin double bass
Bobo Stenson piano
Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Michelle Makarski violin
Jon Christensen drums
Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner
 violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Filmed at Hotel Römerbad, Badenweiler, May 16-18, 1997
Edited by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud and Cyrille Nakache
Post-production: ARRI Studios, Munich
Executive producer: Fredrik Gunnarsson

Continuing in my coverage of ECM rarities, I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of an obscure VHS tape documenting the 1997 Römerbad-Musiktage, where an eclectic group of ECM musicians gathered to perform as part of this annual musical event. The clamshell case insert provides the following description:

The Römerbad-Musiktage has been an important event in the contemporary music calendar since 1973, when impresario Klaus Lauer first began to present concerts in the Kuppelsaal of the hotel he owns in the South German resort town of Badenweiler. Although a wide range of music has been presented at the Hotel Römderbad, the emphasis has been on modern composition, and a close working relationship has been established with composers including Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, György Kurtág, György Ligeti and Wolfgang Rihm. In 1993, Lauer and music producer Manfred Eicher instigated another annual series, with performances by improvisors and interpreters associated with the ECM label. More than a mere festival, the Badenweiler meeting allows an informed public to witness ECM recording artists in the process of shared musical discovery. Spontaneity is the watchword as the musicians play together, in both proven and untested combinations. “The ECM Whitsun Concert Series at the Römerbad have become an enduring artistic experience,” wrote the Frankfurter Rundschau of the 1997 event. “The aesthetics of Eicher’s equally stringent and open agenda has acquired international renown. Listeners from 16 countries had the opportunity to enrich and modify their musical worldview and to perceive things unavailable at conventional music events.”

Sadly enough, the 50-minute video is not a document of the performances themselves. What we do get, however, is an intimate glimpse into ECM’s “behind-the-scenes” presence in the world of live music as Eicher brings together musicians that have rarely (if ever) shared a stage to create something as enduring in the minds of listeners as it is spontaneous in its coalescence. Filmmaker and friend of the label Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, along with coeditor Cyril Nakache, go to great lengths to clue us in not only on the logistics of putting together such an event but also on the everyday imperfections that must be ironed out to pull it off with elegance.

The split curtain that introduces us to the concert space, backgrounded by the unmistakable sound of John Surman’s bass clarinet, offers a sliver of orientation before we see the reed virtuoso in the flesh, along with bassist Anders Jormin, engaging in a measured dance as shots of the hotel’s interior and attentive staff are revealed in leisurely succession.

What follows is a series of rehearsal footage as Eicher molds the air with his hands, visually imagining what he hopes will take place when the room is populated with seasoned ears. Surman talks afterward about how easy it is to play with musicians who listen so deeply to each other before melodizing on soprano saxophone with Bobo Stenson and Jon Christensen joining on piano and drums, respectively.

The film moves on to Dino Saluzzi, who fills the room with the resonance of his bandoneón as the other musicians decide on their configurations with Eicher’s input. They then augment Saluzzi with Jormin and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Violinist Michelle Makarski is also interviewed, expressing her love of improvisation despite her classical training and her gratitude for being among these jazz greats. She recalls being asked to perform the works of Keith Jarrett in New York City, which caught the attention of Eicher and resulted in the 1994 album Bridge Of Light, followed by her solo album Caoine one month before this film was made. Her sound meshes soulfully with Saluzzi and Stanko, the latter of whom talks about the beauty of the space, the dry acoustics of which allow for the cultivation of a fuller sound among such artfully curated musicians.

Saluzzi is the focal point of the most alluring ensembles, especially when he combines his sound with that of the phenomenal Rosamunde Quartett. Anchored by the robust cello of Anja Lechner, the strings pair wonderfully with Saluzzi’s generous spirit. In the interview that follows, he talks about pitching this formal music crossover as a blurring of divisions toward social harmony. His tangos uphold that ethos with utmost love, imprinting the film’s final moments with a message for all.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity: Elastic Wave (ECM 2724)

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity
Elastic Wave

André Roligheten tenor, soprano and bass saxophones, clarinet
Petter Eldh double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded June 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: July 15, 2022

André Roligheten is one of the most exciting young saxophonists in the Norwegian jazz scene. I had the pleasure of seeing him in various guises under the auspices of the 2018 Nutshell jazz festival (see my writeup and photos here), and I always hoped to see his name on an ECM roster one day. I am happy to say that day has come, and I can hardly imagine finer company than Swedish bassist Petter Eldh (who made his first label appearance as part of Django Bates’ Belovèd on The Study Of Touch) and Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen, whose highly sought-after name emblazons Elastic Wave as bandleader. Nilssen has played with almost anyone of note in the European circuit you can think of, from veterans like Audun Kleive (under whom he studied) and Arild Andersen to fresher talents like Maciej Obara (see Unloved and Three Crowns) and Roligheten himself. His paths have also intersected with major figures from across the pond, including Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny.

With such a title and album cover to go with it, we might expect a frenzy of activity. Instead, we are introduced to Acoustic Unity’s fluid identity via “Altaret,” one of two more relaxed tunes from Eldh’s pen. In silver-tinted monochrome, it lays an ante of trust on the proverbial card table. Later in the set, the bassist’s “Dreignau” allows the chips to fall where they may, tapping into an ethos that animates everything the band touches. “Influx Delight” breaks form with a tenor-led romp of post-bop energy that sparks the senses and, along with “Acoustic Dance Music” (both were co-written by Nilssen and Roligheten), puts its unique brand of introspective extroversion on full display. On the flip side, we find extroverted introspection in Roligheten’s “Cercle 85” and “Til Liv.” Whereas the first is a clarinet-led stroll through streets at night, the second is an ode to the composer’s daughter, the abstractions of which capture that delightful complexity daughters so uniquely hold. Nilssen’s “Spending Time With Ludvig” counters with a tribute to the drummer’s son, while “Boogie” flows with Eldh in intuitive confluence. Its free and easy style never forces its hand, puffing out old clouds into a new sky.

Nilssen cites many influences, from Jack DeJohnette to Jon Christensen (one of whose cymbals, in fact, takes pride of place in this session’s kit), among others. The tune “Lokket til Jon, og skjerfet til Paul,” notes this album’s press release, “also alludes to a scarf once left at the La Buissonne studio by Paul Motian, used here to take the edge off the bass drum’s ringing overtones.” Brushed drums and softly splashing cymbals show an artist at the kit, painting in everything from watercolor and acrylics to thickly applied oils. Roligheten’s sensitivities retake the helm, revealing the same depth of character I experienced in live settings. The saxophonist further contributes “The Other Village,” in which he plays tenor and soprano simultaneously, surprising us with bagpipe sonorities before riding Nilssen’s rolling thunder into oblivion. The latter’s “The Room Next To Her” closes the set with the guttural wonders of Roligheten on bass saxophone. Such feet-to-flame playing enacts a slow-motion punch to the gut that leaves us stronger for it. I can’t wait for Round 2.

Avishai Cohen: Naked Truth (ECM 2737)

Avishai Cohen
Naked Truth

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Barak Mori double bass
Ziv Ravitz drums
Recorded September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Juan Hitters
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 25, 2022

The first eight notes of Naked Truth planted themselves in the soil of trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s mind at the beginning of the pandemic. Thus sprouted the present suite in as many parts. Every question it poses can only be answered by listening.

Cohen and his faithful bandmates—pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Ziv Ravitz—craft a story that has been told before, but rarely with such transparency. Part I opens with a duet between Cohen and Mori that looks through holes in the fence of life to glimpse what hopes might exist beyond. Part II introduces the sparks of Avishai at the keys, floating from the small fires of Ravitz at the kit. Cohen and Mori close with a prayer as much for the journey ahead as for the rubble left behind.

The pianism of Part III reaches vastly, setting up a bass-doubled motif that circles in search of song. From these threads, Cohen spins a fibrous sound, muted yet strong enough to suspend the very earth before revealing a heart of light. Past the softer carpet of Part IV, Parts V and VI offer respective interludes for piano and drums, before the introspective Part VII rises in intimate grandeur. Part VIII adopts a backward glance, grooving subtly into the receding horizon.

The set closes with Cohen’s reading of “Departure” (written in full below), a poem by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), in a translation from the Hebrew by Sharon Mohar and Cohen himself. Cohen recited this poem during his ECM 50th anniversary appearance at Lincoln Center. Its opening lines, which make up this review’s epigraph, have lived with me ever since. Mishkovsky reminds us that even when our elders hand us the truths of their experience, we tend to ignore them until we know them firsthand. We must live separated yet ever in the world, holding certainty like the candle it is, knowing its flame will one day sputter out. The music beneath the verses frames Cohen as a traveler whose journey has graciously intersected with ours for the exact duration of this album. I thank him for the honor of sharing the road with us.

… . …

Departure
Zelda Schneurson MishkovskyTranslated from Hebrew by Sharon Mohar and Avishai Cohen

It is necessary to begin the
departure from the splendour
of the skies and the colours
of earth, to stand alone and
face the silence of death, to
part from curiosity, part from
words, all the words that I’ve
read and heard.

And from water, that I’ve
seen and haven’t seen. To die
without seeing the ocean.

Part from the air of the night
and part from the air of the
morning.

Part from weeds, part from a
fruit tree and from a barren
tree, from the lesser light and
from the stars.

Abandon the sight of a flying
bird, part from the sight of
a beast or an insect, part from
my friends and comrades, part
from the dampest of excitement
and from fear of the obscure
madness.

Part from the Shabbat, from the
sweetness of the seventh day.

Part from all work and art, from
rituals, from rain and from all
that is pleasing to the eye.

It is necessary to part from
Knowing-Good-And-Evil of
this world since other terms
of good and evil are there.

Part from what happened, from
the deep sleep and from the
dream.

Part from shame, from the fear
of death, from guilt, from curse,
from exhaustion.

Part from reflections about life,
from reflections about human
nature, from reflections about
the nature of the universe.

Part from reflections about
the difference between myself
and the other, from reflections
about identity, from reflections
about my inner nature, from
reflections about how little
I know about myself and about
all that is around me, part from
the sensation of the soul facing
the high mountains, part from
the need of food, from anxiety,
from the ridicule.

Part from the clouds, from
all that is changing, from the
undefined, from fire, from
stones and from wisdom.

From the physical movement
and from the inner movement.
From love and from hate.
From music. And before the
end, to live with the fear of
their death, and the certainty
of my own.

Kit Downes: Vermillion (ECM 2721)

Kit Downes
Vermillion

Kit Downes piano
Petter Eldh double bass
James Maddren drums
Recorded May/June 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 11, 2021

On Vermillion, pianist Kit Downes continues guiding his chisel along ECM’s burnished surface. With bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren, he presents a mixture of ripe and freshly planted tunes, giving himself over to unforeseen impulses.

Downes and Eldh contribute five tunes apiece. The bandleader tries on outfits of various abstractions, finding each to be sleek and unrestrictive. The sound forged on “Minus Monks,” the album’s opener, is arboreal in its shade-providing abilities. Movements between colors, times, and places feel effortless beneath Downes’s fingertips. Paying homage to pianist John Taylor, he continues down that path of reverence with a sound that pushes as much as pulls. “Sister, Sister” takes an opposite approach, opening with exact measurements before tessellating into off-kilter rhythms, wherein his expressive body can flex without tripping over itself. It takes up no more space than it needs to, whispering its mantras of care only to those who ask to hear them. Such empathy can be hard to come by in a pandemic-scarred world, and it is a welcome gift. Further grace abounds in “Seceda” and “Bobbl’s Song.” In these, the trio shifts from wide-angle shots to close-ups, rendering the ears projection screens for the lives of others. Its breezy sentience finds solace in “Rolling Thunder” (Downes), wispy as clouds stretched translucent by the wind.

Alongside these graded plateaus, Eldh juxtaposes geometric rock formations. “Plus Puls” embraces quietly propulsive pianism while the rhythm section experiments with phonemes like a child rolling possibilities of meaning around in the brain. The upbeat fibrillations of “Sandilands” carry over that verve as its composer runs through a field of leaves without stepping on a single one of them. “Waders” is a high point for the trio’s organic changes, which do nothing to betray the difficulty of this music, rendered smooth as glass. What begins as an almost hesitant blues in “Class Fails” turns into a forthright exclamation of learning the hard way, leaving “Math Amager” to solve the Rubik’s cube of its self-regard.

In listening to Vermillion for the first time, I am moved by how these musicians treat light. Bright as our nearest star is, they manage to put a stained-glass window between it and us. This is most evident in their concluding rendition of Jim Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand,” an ode to the crumbling idols we call politics. If these reflections seem somber, it is only because those who’ve seen enough of life never stop drawing lines of awareness to the sun behind the clouds. There is always more to hope for.

Michael Mantler: Coda (ECM 2697)

Michael Mantler
Coda

Recorded September 2019
at Porgy & Bess Studio, Vienna, Austria
Engineers: Martin Vetters and Juan José Carpio del Rio
Additional recording, mixing, and mastering
November 2019 and June 2020
at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Design: Sascha Kleis
Produced by Michael Mantler
An ECM Production
in collaboration with Porgy & Bess
Release date: July 16, 2021

Coda: a concluding statement, based on elaborations of thematic material from selected past works. So does the booklet for this album of Austrian trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler’s Orchestral Suites define its collective title. In that sense, we might point to its reworking of material from his substantial corpus, including elements of 13 3/4AlienFolly Seeing All ThisCerco Un Paese InnocenteHide and Seek, and For Two. Beyond that, it is an inclusive force that attaches its tendrils to outside influences, carved as much on the surface of the present as of the past. Using his favorite ensemble format of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, guitar, piano, marimba/vibraphone, and a string section (here under the direction of Christoph Cech), he walks self-referencing as a path to evolution.

While Mantler’s music has deeply cinematic skin (going back at least to 1978’s Movies), there’s no denying a dramaturgical heartbeat within. This isn’t just recycling; it’s a psychological reforming of the self. A frenetic yet never overbearing energy pulls a punch in the TwoThirteen Suite. The electric guitar of Bjarne Roupé rises from the strings as a phoenix, while pianist David Helbock stirs the ashes left behind. In the wake of this tempered triumph, the Folly Suite interrupts in mid-sentence, opening into a quieter realm where the trumpet emotes from the ledge of a skyscraper, tracking as many bodies as it can on the streets below until it loses count. Effortlessly gliding from one part of the city to another until only memories of gridlines are left, Mantler is the itinerant planner whose leaves his messages like tickets on the windows of every illegally parked car as a reminder of acoustic order in a digital world. The Alien Suite leaves such quotidian concerns far behind as Roupé and Mantler go extraterrestrial. The flute of Leo Eibensteiner adds a touch of unexamined landscapes over tense strings. The overarching sense is that of an oncoming storm that never arrives.

If the piano in the Cerco Suite is a pile of bones, then the orchestra is the archaeological team putting it back together. The excitement of this discovery veers into a cavern where the oboe of Peter Tavernaro speaks of civilizations drawn into ruin. Whatever voices we might have recovered there are subsumed into the HideSeek Suite. What were once lyrics now become impulses—the physical sensations of the breaths that produced them. As winds and piano hover beneath the heat of the electric guitar, a mature control of tension and release treats the explosive reveals of life as a matter of course.

Mantler has always had a gift for turning melodies into full bodies. More than signatures or calling cards, they hold themselves together in spite of staggered surroundings. Such is the theme of these compressed realities, each a doorway leading to another.

Steve Tibbetts: Hellbound Train (ECM 2656/57)

Steve Tibbetts
Hellbound Train

DISC I
Steve Tibbetts guitars, kalimba, percussion
Marc Anderson congas, percussion, gongs
Jim Anton bass (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9)
Eric Anderson bass (1, 8, 9)
Bob Hughes bass (10, 11)
Mike Olson synthesizer (7)
Marcus Wise tabla (8, 10)
Claudia Schmidt voice (1, 9)
Rhea Valentine voice (1)
DISC II
Steve Tibbetts guitars, dobro, piano, kalimba
Marc Anderson congas, percussion, steel drum, gongs, handpan
Michelle Kinney cello, drones (9, 10, 11, 16)
Bob Hughes bass (15)
Tim Weinhold vase, bongos (15)
Marcus Wise tabla (3)
Recorded 1981-2017
Mastered by Greg Reierson
at Rare Form Mastering, Minneapolis
Cover photo: Lucas Foglia
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: July 1, 2022

“The Best Steve Could Do” is how Steve Tibbetts describes Hellbound Train, a sweeping anthology of works drawn from his decades-long trek across internal and external terrains. The Minnesota-based guitarist and composer selected tracks for this double-disc effort in terms of how well their beginnings and endings suggested connections in an emerging (if malleable) whole. Holding it all together is the trust he shares with his musicians, including percussionists Marc Anderson and Tim Weinhold, tabla player Marcus Wise, bassists Jim Anton, Eric Anderson, and Bob Huges, and cellist Michelle Kinney, among others. In sampling his ECM traversal through Northern Song (1982), Safe Journey (1984), Exploded View (1986), Big Map Idea(1989), The Fall Of Us All (1994), A Man About A Horse (2002), Natural Causes (2010), and Life Of (2018), we are privy to an artist whose instruments are as fleshy as his flesh is instrumental.

Disc I begins with light, as such experiences often do: the glow of an ember, the first twinkle at dusk, the glint in a child’s eye. In search of roadside rest, the itinerant Tibbetts coaxes an all-out percussive mantra from the thickets flanking his path. This is the setting of “Full Moon Dogs,” one of four vital organs transplanted from The Fall Of Us All. An electric guitar courses over this landscape with the charge of a meteor shower. As in “Nyemma” (a lunar spotlight on the voice of Claudia Schmidt) and “Roam And Spy,” he makes his choice—and a fire—to settle in for the night. What follows is not a peaceful slumber, though tranquility is never far away, sharing one image after another until a story takes shape.

Five signposts from A Man About A Horse rise like telephone poles against the Milky Way, strung with trajectories of communication to take upon waking. Whether through the clopping rhythms of “Chandoha” or the sputtering lantern light of “Lochana,” a sense of unease builds to the dyad of “Black Temple” and “Burning Temple,” wherein smoke rules the day. In the aftermath of “Glass Everywhere,” hints of violence dissolve into a brief exchange of voices and laughter.

Despite its destructive qualities, fire is a constant companion, fueled at every turn by the gristle of truth. Tibbetts survives by flinging his 12-string bola at the agile game embodied by hands on drums. The sunlight grows stronger in the elastic nostalgia of “Your Cat” (our sole dip into Exploded View), intersecting the ecliptic of “Vision.” The latter encounter foreshadows the standout selections from Safe Journey on Disc II, including the sacred congregation of kalimba, steel drum, and reverberant picking that is “Climbing” and the masterful “Night Again” and “My Last Chance.” With so much scintillation to chew on, it’s a wonder we don’t turn into comets in the process of listening to them. Big Map Idea compels five entries in this sonic diary, including a nod to Jimmy Page (“Black Mountain Side”) and an excerpt from “Mile 234,” an excursion marking time more than distance.

Grander biomes await us in two tracks from Northern Song. Whereas “The Big Wind” is a winged groove, “Aerial View” feels somehow connected to the earth—so much so that their titles could be reversed and still feel accurate. Life Of sends out four of its offspring, reared in the shadows of Natural Causes, of which “Chandogra” is the epitome of renewal. As if first setting out, our feet no longer have callouses, our muscles are strong, and our packs are heavy. We look upon the open road not as a burden but as an invitation. The only answer to our call resounds in the final “Threnody,” a guitar without a need beyond the hymn it holds against the sun as a compass for all who might come after.

An ethereal souvenir from places we will never visit, Hellbound Train struggles against the current of any vocabulary. This is the best can do to tell its story. A must-have for Tibbetts fans and an ideal place to start for those fortunate to hear any of this music for the first time.