Road to Joy
Steve Taylor takes an in-depth look at Steve Tibbetts' A Man About a Horse

After an eight-year hiatus, Minnesotan Steve Tibbetts returns with a seventh ECM album, bearing yet again the same cryptic touch and unmistakable austerity as in all six before it. With the use of triggering technology, samples and computer editing, the guitarist-composer has found some new ways to execute and shingle recorded moments. The result is another trademark guitar-and-percussion cinema that feels like a solo record this time out. Steve Tibbetts' career started in 1976, and though his art remains enigmatic as ever, he ironically is quite personable.

A Man About a Horse reads like the kernel of the American colloquial excuse to depart suddenly from the company of others. Steve Tibbetts sometimes steals himself away to far corners of the globe, but mostly to the dark of a St. Paul studio where he has worked for twenty years conjuring journeys of mind to great mythic destinations like 'the Void' and 'Nowhere'. Historically, whenever Tibbetts has focused on the brute power side of this trip, he predictably enthralls the Guitar Player magazine readership and a few of the less known journalism MAs at Rolling Stone. But, his dense and organically complex post-worldmusic with a psychedelic shadow (he calls it post-modern neo-primitivism) has been chiefly fascinating to the less visible, mostly male audiophile crowd, who like to sit still for 50 minutes in low light navigating good sound, like a blindman's movie or similar invisible drama.

His latest recording provides fresh program material for such incense rituals and sounds something close to the logical blending of two previous albums. The Fall of Us All from 1994 is known for its raucous neo-Hendrix gilding & Asian ceremonial aura, and Big Map from 1988, for its gentler, acoustic portrayal of velvet instability through non-stop musical gesture. A Man About a Horse's 45 minutes and eight instrumental tracks alternately favor electric or acoustic texture, or dovetail the two. The music within comes to advertise to perfection what has been at the core of Tibbetts recording art since 1981's "Northern Song". It is impermanence, which plainly emerges again as the central gestalt of this American buddhist with a guitar who has traveled in Nepal and Indonesia among the descendants of its lexicographers.

cd cover Horse is a deeply layered music that can seem dauntingly opaque or hopelessly unmemorizable. Yet, for the same reason it refuses to traffic in known musical parlance of any kind, being a kind of ultimate cliché avoidance assignment, by definition avant-garde, it is also at the same time luminous and even airy. It is a music that cannot resolve nor conform to expectations and does not aspire to. Welcome to the thoroughly original, iceberg of paradox that is the music of Steve Tibbetts.

The weightless, centerless, constantly shifting flow of ideas that make up A Man About a Horse is normal operating mode for Tibbetts. But here there is much less high drama or patchwork, and a more intuitive, finely woven sense of balance; an obvious marriage of male and female. What one hears during the ten plus minutes of "Red Temple" for example are perhaps like the fleeting spectres of consciousness that arise while tasking to sit quietly in meditation. The stream flows both limpid and turbid. Wrathful deities come and go. Do the waters clear? Sort of. Clarity is no doubt increasingly important to Tibbetts. The cover image of his career old, enflamed leather jacket certainly proffers the idea of immolated ego or consumed karma, impediments conquered on the road to stillness and clarity.

What does this mountain monastery talk mean to someone that has never heard the reluctant guitar deity/tone collagist's work before? Well. Very little on A Man About A Horse resembles functional harmony, melody, or even tonality. Only rhythm, supplied here by bassist Jim Anton, tabla stylist Marcus Wise, percussionist Marc Anderson, but mostly Tibbetts himself, gives this record a toehold in the consensus world of musical meaning. Yet even rhythm is never static nor to be taken for granted. Everything comes at the listener like a series of minor-key phantasms, emerging, shrieking, twisting, fading, and by design rarely leaving a mark on the listening mind. Only the final two tracks, "Chandoha" and "Koshala" are lightly dusted with traces of hum-able melodic form.

Instrumental music's chief magic may be in its capacity to hold a space for the separate internal images of experience created for it by either artist intent or audience interpretation. Though he has leaned here toward a more meditative treatment, something akin to active ambience, Tibbetts still favors the prospect of providing a semblance of story or sequence of imagined events. Since he prefers not to disclose his own vision of what is happening, listener involvement is crucial to realizing any narrative, if at all. The element of time, together with non-recursive movement, establishes his music as an apt metaphor for the psychology of either lived or dreamed experience.

Eventually one might conclude that, if a record like A Man About A Horse entrains the listener into the phenomenon of impermanence, where ideally one can never step into the same river twice, the return for further listens is done precisely for that unpredictable experience that seems possible with each audition. Sounds like the recipe for the perfect record, right?

A Man About a Horse is missing just one important thing however, a recognizable sense of joy. Though American jazz (and rock) was once about joy and celebration, a majesty of blues, a dancing on an effigy of suffering in ballrooms and bars, the ECM record company, beginning in 1969, focused on the before-joy of its contemporary stepchildren. ECM in part spoke for the finer shade of jazz that was to come, of inwardly reflective wilderness trekkers, consciousness explorers and unorthodox rural abstractionists, all with a common skill for beautiful surface. The record buff of the 1970s and 80s sought refuge in ECM recordings to experience a credible mixture of real-life sobriety and human-amplified natural world beauty/tender indifference: the so-called "most beautiful sound next to silence". Today, in ECMs continuing saga of well-recorded jazz, non-jazz improvisation and other art and classical musics, Steve Tibbetts' reserved grandeur still fits in like it has all along. He is among the label's few true psychonauts, not one of many real-time pastoralists. Yet, you'd have to go back to 1979's pre-ECM Yr, Tibbetts' widely hailed second recording, to find moments of acoustic sunshine.

Four decades on, will the sound of outright bliss ever grace the stoic German label? Who's to know? However, Steve Tibbetts as an American representative, is not a completely typical ECM artist. (Nor is orchestral composer John Adams and Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti, but those are other stories.) For one, he does his own recording which takes much longer than the mandatory maximum of three ECM studio days and the work displays a more intimate fidelity. More telling however, the press kit that came with the promotional copy included two detailed, surprisingly human, very often humorous biographs written by Tibbetts personally. While the majority of classical-jazz professionals maintain a non-personal profile, Tibbetts has gone out of his way to remind journalists that he is a normal guy, an ordinary man with responsibilities and frailties anyone can relate to. Like the wasp attack while gutter cleaning that ultimately broke his pick hand wrist and forced him to quickly document all the electric licks before surgery, or the unique speaker cabinet, dropped on tour during loading, that provides his signature tone. This is refreshing stuff and yields several more delicious paradoxes: 'the common man with a penchant for far-out music', or, 'an impersonal realm that could only have been made by one person'.

In many ways Steve Tibbetts soundworld artfully mimmicks an entire hemisphere of living: all that is imperfect and irreproducible. At the very least, Tibbetts' deep immersion in his own eastern-influenced creative universe, yields an exquisitely patterned overcast of honest dreaming solitude: noble truths of sadness, pain, uncertainty, and ultimately, illusion. It's obvious the sound of joy East and the sound of joy in the West do not mirror each other. And there may be a joy, a sonic mahasukha of sorts, hidden inside Tibbetts' major key-avoiding palette somehow. But the challenge remains for any westerner to translate so those who don't speak the language of Emptiness can feel it's joy. - Steve Taylor

This recording is available from cdRoots

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