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Steve Tibbetts: Natural Causes

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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First things first: this is a mellow record. A very mellow record. Not Ben Webster mellow, or Antonio Carlos Jobim mellow, or Morton Feldman mellow, but rather, a record of music depicting a kind of quietism: profoundly passive contemplation. And it's not clear that quietism is a direction all jazz fans will want to go.

Now the project is an interesting one, and there is no lack of skill or care in its execution. Guitarist Tibbetts plays his father's 45-year-old Martin D-12-20 12-string guitar, an instrument with a marvelous tone, with the frets practically worn smooth away. Tibbetts is inspired by Ustad Sultan Khan's masterful playing of the sarangi, the Indian classical instrument with a singing tone, whose sound Tibbetts seeks to emulate in much the way Miles Davis wanted to make his trumpet sound like Jimi Hendrix's guitar. Tibbetts meanwhile overdubs mellow piano, and is accompanied by percussionist Marc Anderson. Throughout, recordings of metal instruments from Indonesia are triggered by Tibbetts directly from his guitar according to some complicated harmonic rules.

The sum of these parts, however, in its mellowness, fails to engage. That may be the point, of course. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the record should be this way given its subject matter and its style. There are other experiments on the fringes of jazz that have addressed some of the aesthetic and philosophical issues that interest Tibbetts, while managing to avoid the quietist temptation. Saxophonist Eugene Lee portrayed the tumult that besets the meditator's mind on the quest for enlightenment on his Meditations (Pure Potentiality, 2008). Meanwhile, there have been more than a few successful acoustic-guitar-oriented forays into Indian music from a more or less jazz or blues base: Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Batt's Meeting By the River (Water Lily Acoustics, 1993); Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's Garden of Dreams (Worldly , 1993), with Zakir Hussein and Swapan Chaudhuri. Further afield, Bill Laswell's Hear No Evil (Venture, 1988) might fall into this category.

Tibbetts recorded an acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix's "Villanova Junction" and then decided not to include it on the record. A video recording has been made available, nevertheless, and can be seen below. Now, the odd little guitar in the video is presumably not the old Martin 12-string, but Tibbetts is only miming to the recording, so the sound recording may feature the same guitar heard on Natural Causes. Even miming, the video reveals his strikingly elastic playing style in pursuit of that sarangi sound.

More important, the performance of the Hendrix tune reveals what is missing on Natural Causes: edge, hurt, longing. The blues. Perhaps the gap between quietism and the blues is unbridgeable; perhaps Tibbetts was right to leave this song off the record. But it's a hell of a rendition.


Track Listing: Sitavana; Padre-yaga; Attahasa; Chandogra; Sangchen Rolpa; Lakshmivana; Manikarnike; Ishvaravana; Gulezian; Kili-ki Drok; Kuladzokpa; Lament; Threnody.

Personnel: Steve Tibbetts: guitars, piano, kalimba, bouzouki; Marc Anderson: percussion, steel drum; gongs.

Title: Natural Causes | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ECM Records

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