Recording of January 2003: A Man About a Horse

STEVE TIBBETTS: A Man About a Horse
Steve Tibbetts, guitar, percussion; Jim Anton, bass; Marc Anderson, Marcus Wise, percussion
ECM 1814 (CD). 2002. Steve Tibbetts, prod., eng. ADD. TT: 45:07
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Widespread recognition for Steve Tibbetts' instrumental work is long overdue. A Man About a Horse is the guitarist-percussionist's 10th astonishing disc, if you include his two most recent releases, collaborations with Tibetan nun Choying Drolma and Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Knut Hamre. But it's been almost six years since Tibbetts' last solo work on ECM—a long break during which he's traversed the globe a couple of times, gathering everything from gamelan samples in Bali to multitonal vocal recordings of Hevajra Tantra texts at a retreat in Vermont. Yet his new music picks up right where he left off with 1996's The Fall of Us All, because Tibbetts' very personal guitar style is at the center of each track.

Tibbetts has adopted a string-bending technique from the sarangi, a bowed Indian instrument whose strings are stopped with the backs of the fingers instead of the tips. This gives his flat-fretted 12-string acoustic guitar a sweet-and-sour sound you'll hear nowhere else. When he plays electric guitar, Tibbetts alternates between fat layered clouds of ambient sound and frenzied Hendrixian axe-grinding. He then sends his guitars careening around the soundstage, adding motion and size to the ribbons of notes.

So does Steve Tibbetts play heavy-metal guitar, a genre he freely admits to liking? If so, it's "the quietest heavy-metal I've heard," says John Atkinson. To me it sounds more like bronze, with a malleable golden glow. Tibbetts at times ferociously attacks the bronze-wound strings, but never drops into heavy-metal cliché. Many of the instruments heard on this disc are made of bronze as well, in particular those from Indonesia.

Each track is anchored with a mix of ever-present Asian, African, and Latin percussion—at times sparse and atmospheric, at others dramatic, convulsive, and abrupt. Tibbetts layered most of the original percussion parts, sampled or otherwise, then enlisted longtime collaborators Marc Anderson and Marcus Wise and their arsenal of rhythm devices to tighten everything up and add the extra air he was looking for. No two measures of drumming sound alike. Tibbetts, Anderson, and Wise create patterns that are deceptively easy to follow yet evolve complexly, never looping or resting in a shallow groove.

Most important, these elaborate compositions work on several intellectual and emotional levels, revealing additional details with repeated listenings. "There are lots of things in there that hover just under or just over the threshold of audio discrimination," said Tibbetts in an interview. "Voices, clapping, and more; it's all there, folded in and peeking out. It's the one disc of mine I actually enjoy listening to."

Tibbetts doesn't write tunes that you'll be humming the next day, but A Man About a Horse is not about abstract, hard-to-fathom noodling. He described it (with a wink, I'm sure) as "postmodern neoprimitivism." I've also seen his music described as "Tibetan Buddhist punk-jazz rock." That makes it sound more confused than it really is. Tibbetts strikes an almost perfect balance between challenging listeners with a wild musical world and caressing them with ear candy.

The tracks hang together as a single, continuous work. The opener, Lupra, begins with the patter of tabla beats as we hear the subtle roar of Tibbetts electric guitar lurking like a tiger in the distance, fading to washes of rich acoustic guitar chords. All the while, the percussion shifts back and forth, delicately padding like raindrops. And then track two, Red Temple, begins with a crash reminiscent of a raucous Balinese parade, only to fade into more sonorous washes of guitar. And so it goes, winding like a river through an exotic jungle. As Tibbetts explains "I like playing with the imagery that music forms in consciousness. There's a plot. There's intention and meaning."

Before making A Man About a Horse, Tibbetts had fractured his wrist in a freak incident involving a wasp and a ladder. Although recovered enough to be able to play again, to prevent long-term damage he needed some bone rebuilding that would likely keep him from playing for a few months—and, if things didn't go just right, perhaps much longer. So with a surgery date looming, Tibbetts recorded as many "berserk" bits and pieces of wild guitar into his recorder as he could squeeze off in one long and furious evening. He then stashed them away, to be assembled and edited later, on a computer, during his recovery.

Tibbetts had never created on a digital workstation before, preferring the traditional multitrack analog approach. Yet A Man About a Horse sounds like the all-analog Tibbetts of yore. He's found a new way to get to the same place, using the modern recording tools that have homogenized so many other artists.

This is hardly your traditional audiophile recording: no purist miking technique or obsessing over microphone cables. No matter—Tibbetts has the instincts to get everything to sound just right. Any audiophile who loves to hear something fresh should do their ears a favor and feed them this disc. It's pure audio ecstasy that will work all of your system's parts and give your listening room and your imagination a good flexing.—Jon Iverson