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Steve Tibbetts: Natural Causes

John Kelman By

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Alongside Stephan Micus, Steve Tibbetts occupies a somewhat rare position in ECM's roster of longstanding musical collaborators. Like the German composer/multi-instrumentalist, this "Zen Guitarist" defies ECM's general rule of two days to record, one day to mix (with minimal editing and overdubbing); instead, Tibbetts has, with rare exception, recorded his music from a home base in St. Paul, Minneapolis—again like Micus, sometimes taking years between recordings and with minimal label intervention. Unlike Micus, however, who produces his albums in isolation, Tibbetts regularly collaborates with others, most notably percussionist Marc Anderson—a constant companion since the guitarist's ECM debut, Northern Song (1982).



Despite Tibbetts' recruitment of others engendering a certain spontaneity absent in Micus' carefully constructed work, his similarly multi-tracked music does rely on texturally expansive but sonically detailed soundscapes. Like 1994's career milestone, The Fall of Us All (1994), A Man About a Horse (2002) was a deceptively ambitious collection of largely calming but still unequivocally deep performances, calling upon a larger cast of characters. Natural Causes's return to the relative simplicity of a duo with Anderson—last heard on Northern Song (1982)—still stands out amongst Tibbetts' ECM discography for its all-acoustic nature.



Simpler in premise, perhaps, but comparisons with Northern Song only demonstrate just how far Tibbetts has come. His predilection, here, for 12-string acoustic guitar might draw superficial comparison to label mate Ralph Towner, but Tibbetts eschews the Oregon cofounder's detailed, change-heavy compositional constructs; relying, instead, on miniature orchestration built from relatively diminutive instrumentation. Tibbetts layers over 20 guitar tracks on "Gulezian"—co-written with guitarist Michael Gulezian and the only piece not written solely by Tibbetts—without ever feeling overcrowded. Its overt folksiness reflects the perennially undervalued Gulezian's biggest touchstone—acoustic guitar icons like Leo Kottke and John Fahey—but with Tibbetts at the helm it retains, unsurprisingly, an episodic sense of evolution, as miniature moments of serenity and near-silence contrast with rhythmic passages driven only occasionally by Anderson's economy of sound and pulse.



Tibbetts' piano and kalimba underpin tracks like the hypnotically propulsive "Chandogra," while Anderson's steel drum engenders additional timbral diversity on "Lakshmivana." Still, it's Tibbetts' resonant 12-string—imbued in phrasing and serpentine linearity by the guitarist's longstanding Far East interests in general, and the work, here, of Sultan Khan in particular—that's Natural Causes' defining voice.



All-acoustic it may be, but Tibbetts' still employs some studio wizardry to create lush sonic backdrops, as he does at the end of "Lakshmivanam." Billed as a duo recording, Natural Causes' multifaceted nature, continually revealing layers and trance-inducing sonorities make clear that there's a silent third partner: the studio itself. Natural Causes couldn't have been created outside the confines of the recording studio but—in its organic holism and absolutely timeless nature—feels as though it were made in some remote outdoor locale. Natural Causes' vivid imagery makes it, in fact, the ideal companion to Norwegian pianist Acker Bilk's similarly cinematic but utterly different Remembrance, also released in North American by ECM, on the same day.


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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