Review of Steve Tibbetts, “Life Of”

The flesh of Steve Tibbetts’ fingers flows across the worn frets of his father’s old Martin 12-string like water over rocks in a stream. Every note is liquid, sensuous with microtonality, appearing as if just thought of in that exact moment of performance. The music here is molten, but Life Of is a slow eruption: this is music for meditation, guitar music that luxuriates in Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Mark Anderson’s relaxed percussion grooves, the cello drones of new collaborator Michelle Kinney, and Tibbetts’ own reverby piano. The spiritual heir to 1988’s Big Map Idea, Life Of is a sonic practice compressed over many years into a diamond sutra of theory where everything sounds easy, the impossible techniques now all second-nature muscle memory. Tibbetts is an alchemist, the wise guy on top of the mountain who, when you finally gain the summit looking for enlightenment, just grins at you and keeps on playing. The wisdom, you realize, was never going to be in words but rather is in this ancient-sounding music that bathes your brain with distant memories of melancholic bliss. Life Of is photos of family and friends, photographs not so much gazed at fondly as held to the chest to let the heart do the seeing. Hard to explain Tibbetts, in other words, which is why the most common descriptors of his music are “unique” and “one of kind.” He’s been releasing albums since 1977, a lot of them on ECM, and is criminally underknown. His oeuvre spans not just decades but continents: every album he’s done sounds like it’s from elsewhere, some explicitly so, as his collaborations with Tibetan Buddhist nun Chöying Drolma, Chö and Selwa. Others, such as 1994’s The Fall of Us All or 2002’s A Man about a Horse, are transcendental metal music from a galaxy where fuzz pedals and high-gain amps are cures for depression and anxiety. For fans of the ECM label, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, or anyone seeking sonic transportation.

This review was first published by Minor 7th.