Steve Tibbetts: Life Of (ECM 2599)

2599 X

Steve Tibbetts
Life Of

Steve Tibbetts guitar, piano
Marc Anderson percussion, handpan
Michell Kinney cello, drones
Recorded in St. Paul
Engineers: Steve Tibbetts and Greg Reierson
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering
An ECM Production
Release date: May 18, 2018

Physically speaking, guitars are solids. In the hands of Steve Tibbetts, they turn into liquids. For his ninth ECM outing, the Minnesotan guitarist puts on his most intimate pair of interpretive glasses yet, pouring said liquids into 13 dedicatory vessels. Tibbetts again holds close to his Martin D-12-20, a 50-year-old 12-string acoustic that has become as much a part of him as he of it. To that trusted palette he adds streaks of piano and field recordings of Balinese gongs. As ever, percussionist Marc Anderson serves as copilot for the journey, while cellist Michelle Kinney (last heard on Big Map Idea) provides underlying circulation.

As if in service of the latter metaphor, “Bloodwork” openly introduces the album in response to a procedure underwent by his ill sister. In it one can hear, as suggested in the album’s press release, the clinical precision with which this music materializes. And yet from that attention to detail emerges an entirely organic sound, replete with human variations and misalignments. All of which is reflected in the fact that Tibbetts plays his guitar with nearly-worn frets and old strings, giving it, in his own words, “a mellow, aged sound, with its own peculiar internal resonance.”

Those familiar with his body of work will have come to expect arrangements that transcend borders while embracing a sometimes-gargantuan sound. Here, however, he zeroes in on seeds beneath the fields he has been tending all these years. Indeed, the baseline beauty of “Life Of Mir”—one of 10 eponymously themed tracks named for loved ones or those Tibbetts has simply observed—teems with life as would the ripest soil. “Life Of Emily” also feels very much alive, trading earth for flesh in a prism of fatherhood, sunlight, and hints of oncoming rain.

The percussion is attuned to every moment in which it is employed, never mere decoration but siphoning its energy from an internal chemistry. Take in the occasional footstep in “Life Of Lowell” or the whispering cymbal in “Life Of Dot,” and you’ll surely feel it, too. At rare moments, as in “Life Of Joan” and “Life Of El,” these forces combine in a mosaic, fitting together shapes and colors in honor of memory. Like the album as a whole, “Life Of Someone” holds the past as an archive for the future—a time capsule already aged before it reaches the ear.

Life Of culminates, appropriately enough, with “Start Again,” a nine-minute swirl of mental images and other formless pigments made audible through the care of an artist who treats every note as ground on which to walk.

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.

(To hear samples of Natural Causes, click here.)

Steve Tibbetts: A Man About A Horse (ECM 1814)

A Man About A Horse

Steve Tibbetts
A Man About A Horse

Steve Tibbetts guitars, percussion
Marc Anderson percussion
Marcus Wise percussion
Jim Anton bass
Recorded 2001 in St. Paul, Minnesota
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Eight years separate 1993’s The Fall Of Us All and A Man About A Horse, during which time Steve Tibbetts met with an accident that required him to have surgery on his right hand. Before the procedure, the story goes, the reclusive Minnesotan laid down all the guitar parts for A Man About A Horse in his home studio, thus leaving a skeleton as solid as his was uncertain. This apocryphal information matters little, however, once “Lupra” reaches its hands, zombie-like, from the soil. The tap of tabla and twang of acoustic guitar engage in intimate conversation, seeming to diagram hitherto unheard regions of the guitarist’s postmodern terrains. The continental drift of his sound is as tectonically aware as ever: sparkling, sure, and ceremonially poignant like the flames on the album’s cover. This teetering session indeed holds on its kindling shoulders a giant cauldron, in which the listener becomes like the fabled frog, unaware of the lethal heat flowering around him. Spirits beckon from behind the beams of the “Red Temple,” wherein slumber the relics of a nameless saint: the faintest sliver of fingernail, a baby’s-breath of hair…each the element of an alchemy that can only be taught through sound. “Black Temple” magnifies the possibility of transformation by polishing its sole crucible to an ember’s glow. Whether in the earthen percussion or transcendent sustains, echoes of The Fall Of Us All permeate every decorated wall, if in a more contemplative mode.

The ambience intensifies in “Burning Temple,” neither exploding nor imploding but shining like a distant sun in search of a planet. The weight of feet sifting through the crumble leaves tracks and trails, and it is over these Tibbetts and his band trace their peace-bringing hands. The scene is crystal clear, as the title of “Glass Everywhere” would seem to imply. The destruction wrought upon the site is internal, and it is along this emotional landscape that the herds of the musicians’ imagination run like the buffalo. The search for reasons continues, forever one step behind the answers. But there is no charity anywhere in the world to mend the damage done. Rather, the music itself becomes the mechanism by which this assemblage coheres into offering. By now, the heat has become so strong that our little frog legs can no longer kick for all the shock. The raw becomes the cooked: a point of no return.

A way out reveals itself in the twisted metal of “Lochana,” in which an electric guitar cries with all the ache of the prairie. A glass eye in the face of “Chandoha” acts as telescope into the private fears that lurk in the backdrop. The air abounds with fragrance, the guitar a match touched to incense. All of which presses “Koshala” into a diamond of such finality that it’s all Tibbetts can do to keep up with its fluttering heart. The delicacy of tabla and sweeping accents of guitar paint an adobe-hued theory of existence at large. With the very landscape as its brush, it emotes in global self-portraits of light. Here emerges a lone sojourner, one who ranges like the Gunslinger of Stephen King’s Dark Tower, unaware of the tangled web of bodies in which he is destined to be enmeshed. And really, destination is something we can always count on in the Tibbetts experience, for we are there the moment we take our first step.

Steve Tibbetts: The Fall Of Us All (ECM 1527)

Steve Tibbetts
The Fall Of Us All

Steve Tibbetts guitars, percussion, discs
Marc Anderson congas, steel drum, percussion
Marcus Wise tabla
Jim Anton bass
Eric Anderson bass
Mike Olson synthesizer
Claudia Schmidt voice
Rhea Valentine voice
Recorded 1990-1993, St. Paul and Boudhanath
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Steve Tibbetts

The Fall Of Us All was my rite of passage into the Book of Tibbetts. The breadth of “Dzogchen Punks” never fails to bring me back to that first precious experience, buried in the solitude of my room under mounds of headphone-induced absorption. Those polyrhythmic drums snatch the hapless listener up in a fiery kiss of technique and experience, one that bears tender fruit in a ribboned middle passage before bleeding itself dry into renewed life. Even in the absence of those percussive footsteps, one always feels them hovering below the skin like a survival instinct. Every flip of the page reveals a new and enthralling illustration. From the steel-wound tassels of “Full Moon Dogs” to the vocal filigree of “Nyemma,” Tibbetts and his intuitive band members arch their backs like cheetahs across a savannah of fire, each the karmic acrobat of a different dream. Surrounded by such ecstatic unrest, we can only “Roam And Spy” until we board a “Hellbound Train” for an arachnid ride that screeches, wheels grinding, into a brimstone station with all the pop of a balloon at a pin’s tip. Cooler temperatures do give us some reprieve, reaching something close to enlightenment in “Drinking Lesson,” a 12-string solo that hangs itself to dry on the psychological fishhooks of “Burnt Offering.” From solemn reflection to full-on walkabout, these coals reignite in “Travel Alone,” becoming one with mindful synths and boundless articulation—a chakra that hits close to home every time.

An organic beat, arid movement, a spiny electric, and a gust of wind nipping at our heels: these are the essential ingredients of Fall. Immaculately engineered and produced by Tibbetts himself, its sound keeps a foot inside and outside this circle of flesh we call the body, sweeping aside mountains with every circular breath. His craftsmanship draws from, even as it defines, the music. We may be aware of individual granules, but in the end we can only cower in the grand ancestral shadow that awakens before us the moment we press PLAY.

Because this was for years my only Tibbetts album, it is the one I cannot do without. But don’t let that stop you from turning every knob he has set for your inner adventurer to discover.

Steve Tibbetts: Big Map Idea (ECM 1380)

 

Steve Tibbetts
Big Map Idea

Steve Tibbetts guitars, dobro, kalimba, pianolin, tapes
Marc Anderson percussion
Marcus Wise tabla
Michelle Kinney cello
Recorded 1987/88 in St. Paul, Minnesota
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Steve Tibbetts

With this release, Steve Tibbetts turned a new leaf in his cartographic imagination. The album’s title betrays its creator’s humility, acknowledging the incompleteness of any landscape, which is never more than a cultural possibility. We see this the moment that signature slack-jawed guitar and worldly percussion paint for us a big map indeed in “Black Mountain Side.” And what’s this? A Led Zeppelin tune, artfully arranged and wrapped in a sparkling bow as only Tibbetts can tie it. But even when he strays into the dripping caverns of “Black Year,” where flames have burnt out long ago yet still flicker with feeling, we are never lost, for there is always something familiar to hold on to. Tracks like this and “Big Idea” teeter at the edge of an all-out frenzy, but stay respectfully perched atop cold mountains, watching the plains with eagle eyes. Each hit of the steel drum forms a new cloud, rustling the foliage in “Wish” and hopping like a bird from branch to branch. The finger tapping and kalimba-infused connections of “Mile 234” make it one of the more masterful turns on this trip. Some of that same instrumental color bleeds into “100 Moons” before an acoustic/electric dance lays track in “Wait.” Sampled voices flow throughout “3 Letters,” turning like a diorama lit by strings, and finish as if living in reverse, turning light into dark, warm and sustained by a maternal hope.

If the majority of Tibbetts’s work is a chant, then Big Map Idea is a lullaby. It is a florid expression of its ancestors, using a relatively intimate palette, one where wings and earth are far closer to one another than logic would dictate.

Steve Tibbetts: Exploded View (ECM 1335)

 

Steve Tibbetts
Exploded View

Steve Tibbetts guitars, tapes, kalimba
Marc Anderson percussion
Bob Hughes bass
Marcus Wise tabla
Claudia Schmidt voice
Bruce Henry voice
Jan Reimer voice
Recorded 1985-86 in St. Paul, Minnesota
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Two chipmunks of the oak at last found a way into the tree house, and would run cheerfully over us, breathing our heated breath; they slept in Blink’s lap for three days of blind violent storms that sheathed the forest in ice, which seemed to make music in the fine blue morning that followed, music too blinding to look at.
John Crowley, Engine Summer

Bless the day Manfred Eicher decided to give Steve Tibbetts his own country in the ECM continent, where he has produced some of the label’s most transportive folkways. On Exploded View, we get a few licks of the fire that would utterly consume us in The Fall Of Us All (if not the other way around). This sits somewhere between that later masterpiece and the quieter heart of Northern Song. “Name Everything” bursts like a freshly lit match onto a geyser-pocked landscape, each beat from percussionist Marc Anderson an eruption of steam that proclaims the earth’s inner desires. “Another Year” is anchored by a glistening acoustic and gilded by that incendiary electric as spiraling internal avenues come to a head in an expansive choral palette. “A Clear Day And No Memories” carries on those vocal menageries with the prominent cries of Claudia Schmidt, who trails her song across an oceanic sky. These quiet into an acoustic aside, alive with rhythmic whispers. The pliant guitar of “Your Cat” is a wonder to behold in the full efficacy of its power, and evidences Tibbetts’s programmatic flair: the music is indeed feline in the way it arches its back, wiggles and pounces, purrs and dreams of the savannah, plays and loves. “Drawing Down The Moon” locks us into the subtlest of grooves, linked by the forward-looking tabla at its core, while “The X Festival” throbs with the voice of history. This superb blend of local and far-reaching mysteries cracks open the dawn, spilling its sunny yolk across the floodplains. The album’s most rhythmically intense moments can be found in “Metal Summer,” which again thrums at the core of something ineffable yet so visceral it can never be denied. Forgoing speech, its finds its voice in the elemental language of grinding flame that is Tibbetts’s modus operandi. Last is “Assembly Field,” another biting trek that ripples across the sands with the slow-motion whip of a sidewinder in search of an oasis it already carries inside, finding solace at last behind the closing eyes of a shimmering acoustic reflection.

Tibbetts chooses his grooves and comings together with tact and with grace, so that we never forget the vivacity of their placement. He shines his light through a necklace of motifs and cellular sound paintings. Take, for instance, the short but unforgettable “Forget,” which has all the makings of a universal anthem. It bristles with a fast head nod and electrical break in the production, keying us in to the malleable style of its surroundings. Like the guitarist at its center, it pulls the strings of time rather than plucking them for trite effect. In doing so, it unleashes an entire culture’s worth of footsteps.

Steve Tibbetts: Yr (ECM 1355)

 

 

Steve Tibbetts
Yr

Steve Tibbetts guitars, kalimba, synthesizer
Marc Anderson congas, drums, percussion
Bob Hughes bass
Steve Cochrane tabla
Marcus Wise tabla
Tim Weinhold bongos, vase, bells
Recorded ca. 1980 at Atma-Sphere and Oxit Roxon, St. Paul
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Steve Tibbetts

Yr is yet another fascinating peek into the Steve Tibbetts sound-verse. The feeling of open plains that so characterized his previous efforts remains, only now the production is more immediate, such that the 12-string intimations unlocking the doors of “Ur” set us adrift in our own mysteries. Percussionist Marc Anderson soars, seeming to grow out of Tibbetts’s hollow-bodied heart before the heavy thrum of the latter’s electric curls itself into a ball and rolls down a hill of unrelenting melody. After an explosion of beats and guitars settles us into the soothing reverie of “Sphexes,” we find our expectations blotted by an interlude of kalimbas before Tibbetts spreads his buttery axe over this acoustic toast with sweetness in “Ten Years.” Fantastic. “One Day,” much like the opener, rises from the ashes of a campfire, but not without leaving an aftertaste of the prairie. “Three Primates” is a pocket of sunshine that shifts masterfully between tones and timbres. Now darkened by shadow, now blinded by noon, it dives headfirst to a tabla-infused conclusion. “You And It” is another shimmering slice of life. Backed by strings and icy sleigh bells, it breathes life into a new day. This opens the doors even wider, letting in the dawn’s early electric and unleashing a torrent of dreams made real. “The Alien Lounge” traipses through tall grasses, weaving past abandoned foxholes and memories of warm nights toward the starlight of “Ten Yr Dance,” spun like a home movie rewound to one’s first days on earth.

This is by far Tibbetts’s most uplifting date and one sure to win you over with its no-frills charm, emoting as it does with an artistry at which we can only shake our heads in wonder. It also shows just how deftly and appropriately he takes advantage of the studio, flipping prerecorded bits on end and adding just the right touch of electronics for depth. The spaces therein are constantly morphing, content to move on once they have achieved a certain kind of beauty while always looking forward to the next.

Timeless, as all Tibbetts releases are.

Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey (ECM 1270)

 

Steve Tibbetts
Safe Journey

Steve Tibbetts guitars, kalimba, tapes
Marc Anderson congas, steel drum, percussion
Bob Hughes bass
Tim Weinhold vase
Steve Cochrane tabla
Recorded 1983 in St. Paul, Minnesota
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Guitarist Steve Tibbetts exploded our view when ECM introduced the world to the adroit textures of Northern Song. He did so again with “Test,” the doorway onto the enlightening path that winds through Safe Journey. Don’t let its initial stirrings fool you into slumber, for you are sure to be jolted by a guitar that seems to scrape the walls of its harmonic enclosure and expose the burnished paneling within. From humble genesis to almost frightening expanse: this is Tibbetts’s MO. With a minimal assortment of instruments in his coterie, he excavates eras’ worth of sediment. Note the stunning passage where his electric gets caught in echoing loops, while its second self solos over the remnants of what it once was. Such splitting of voices is another trademark, as are the contrasts of “Climbing.” In this quiet cave, Tibbetts sits cross-legged with a kalimba in hand, letting its plunking droplets of sound gild the surrounding stalagmites. Curiously, this track feels less like climbing and more like burrowing. Similarly, the delicacies of “Running” feel like a closing of eyelids, behind which the only feet to touch ground are those of an unfinished dream. A sparkling acoustic guitar, a touch of steel drum and sitar, and the patter of footsteps like rain through a children’s rhyme pull a shade of darkness that plunges us into “Night Again.” Here, the programmatic title holds true in the vastness of sound Tibbetts elicits from his strings as he weaves a lullaby against mounting starlit percussion, for neither does the night abide by arbitrary delineations of territory and bodily space. Eventually, the guitar cuts out, leaving the drone to “solo,” as it were, drifting like the Northern Lights into melodic aftereffects. “My Last Chance” is a swath of nostalgia filigreed by a promising future and opens us to the moral intensity of “Vision.” Tibbetts makes some of the most effective use of taped music one is likely to encounter in a band setting, and especially here. His electric cries like a voice from a cracked egg, breaking with the dawn into blinding intensity, seeming to hold its breath before every note is expectorated. “Any Minute” is another fragile design that wavers in ghostlike existence, never quite resolving the memories so fully fleshed out in “Mission.” Running on the gentle propulsion of a spiritual engine, “Burning Up” humbles itself before a smoldering backdrop, where only the trails of fleeting human figures “Going Somewhere” tell us where we might safely tread home. And it is in the tinkling of starlight that we finally come face to face with our destination, which has been ourselves all along.

With such distinct shades of ambience—all activated by an intuitive sense of ebb and flow—and a incredible group of musicians to give it life, this music glints anew every time. Tibbetts is the perennial traveler whose rucksack contains only the freedom of possibility.

Oh, to have been there, at a record shop when this album first came out. If what I feel now is any indication, I can only imagine the depth of its impact.

Wondrous to the nth degree.

Steve Tibbetts: Northern Song (ECM 1218)

 

Steve Tibbetts
Northern Song

Steve Tibbetts guitars, kalimba, tape loops
Marc Anderson congas, bongos, percussion
Recorded October 26-28, 1981, at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Nothern Song, Steve Tibbetts made his ECM debut and introduced listeners to what remains one of the label’s most enchanting, if slowly unfolding, maps. The cover seems to tell us everything: silhouettes of islands superimposed on the journey that takes us to them, as if the dream of arrival were potent enough to burn itself across the rearview mirror of our lives. Tibbetts leaves a trail of quiet footprints easily obscured by “The Big Wind,” yet whose direction is not so easily forgotten. With circumpolar affinity and a sensitivity that is for all intents historical, Tibbetts traces the borders of our lives in “Form.” His shimmering guitar finds spirit in Marc Anderson’s verdant whispers. “Walking” continues in very much the same vein, only this time with a more pronounced wash of 12-string steel that eventually lifts us into an “Aerial View.” And because so much of the Northern Song experience is above ground, we are able to slip more intensely into the meditations of “Nine Doors / Breathing Space,” throughout which strings creak like an old house, if not an old body.

Tibbetts lavishes his instruments with respect, strumming them as he might harps of glacial light. In them we hear diaries, voices, and ideas that need never completed to say everything they need to say. And every delicate application of Anderson’s percussion carries us deeper into the overgrowth before we emerge, forever changed, in the dwindling sunlight. This album is an ocean, and we the birds who range its waters.