One-of-a-kind guitarist and record-maker Steve Tibbetts has an association with ECM dating back to 1981, with his body of work reflecting that of an artist who follows his own winding, questing path. The BBC has described his music as “an atmospheric brew… brilliant, individual.” Life Of…, his ninth album for the label, serves as something of a sequel to his 2010 ECM release, Natural Causes, whichJazz Times called “music to get lost in.” Like the earlier album, Life Of…showcases the richness of his Martin 12-string acoustic guitar, along with his gamelan-like piano and artfully deployed field samples of Balinese gongs; the sonic picture also incorporates the sensitive percussion of long-time musical partner Marc Anderson and the almost subliminal cello drones of Michelle Kinney. Tibbetts, though rooted in the American Midwest, has made multiple expeditions to Southeast Asia, including Bali and Nepal; not only the sounds but the spirits of those places are woven into his musical DNA as much as the expressive inspiration of artists from guitarist Bill Connors to sarangi master Sultan Khan. Life Of… has a contemplative shimmer like a reflecting pool, with most of the album’s pieces titled after friends and family, living and past.
“A Song For You” knits together classic songwriting of the rock era with classic songwriting of the standards era. It draws a through line from a modern classic such as Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You” with the timeless romanticism of Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s “When I Fall In Love”. From Leon Russell to Sacha Distell and Jack Reardon. “Try A Little Tenderness” was a Tin Pan Alley hit of the 1920s long before the well known Otis Redding 60s hit version. The core value of this album is the immortality of great songwriting. The project includes the final work of the legendary Paul Buckmaster, perhaps the greatest arranger and concertmaster of the rock era. “A Song For You” was the very last song Paul worked on in a storied Grammy Award winning career.
If one were to compile a list of iconoclastic and innovative guitarists who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, the list would have to include such names as Michael Hedges, Adrian Belew, David Torn and Steve Tibbetts. While Tibbetts is probably the least known of the four, his work is easily on par with that of the others. What makes Tibbetts unique among these is that he is equally prone to playing acoustic and electric guitars. He has released several all-acoustic albums, but most of his albums feature a good mixture of both, as well as judicious use of electronic effects and a heavy reliance on a variety of exotic and familiar percussive instruments. Safe Journey is all of the above in a nutshell.
SELWA marks the second pairing of fusion guitarist Steve Tibbetts with Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma. Like 1997's CHO, SELWA is a deeply atmospheric, musically adventurous journey that remains true to the spiritual underpinnings of Drolma's practice. A monk whose resonant, mellifluous vocals evoke both the solemnity and the serenity of her chants and prayers, Drolma's singing gifts strike the listener immediately. Even more striking is how perfectly Tibbetts's percussion, effects-drenched guitar work, and production flourishes suit Drolma's voice. Tibbetts's accompaniment is supremely sensitive, supporting and echoing Drolma's phrases and inflections with a variety of suitable instrumentation.
Tibbetts makes metallic folk music for disenfranchised folks. He's an elegant and multifaceted player, his compositions making use of exotic jungle rhythms (courtesy of longtime foil Marc Anderson), jazz-rock signatures, and regal European atmospheres. Tibbetts is one of the more idiosyncratic guitarists of the jazz/rock interface, with an uncanny ability to softly fondle his instrument yet rearrange its vocabulary to resemble nothing less than a sitar or tabla.