Steve Tibbetts: Ur
If you love music enough to read blogs like this, I can almost guarantee that there are a number of times that you first heard a song or an album and had your mind immediately blown. A feeling that you have heard something that was so wonderful, so unlike anything else that you were familiar with, that it stays with you forever. I’ve written about other times this has happened to me, but today I want to write about Steve Tibbetts, whose second album, Yr was a revelation.
Tibbetts is not exactly a household name—he exists somewhere in the never particularly commercial intersection of jazz fusion, world music and ambient music. He is a virtuoso guitarist who painstakingly crafts his albums by overdubbing layers upon layers of instruments, sort of like Mike Oldfield used to do. I remember seeing the album at WPRB—I’m pretty sure someone directed me to it, and from the first listen, I was totally hooked. Our featured song, “Ur,” is the first one on the album, and thus the first one I heard, but they are all great. Beautiful guitar based instrumentals with Indian percussion that moved between soft and lyrical and fast and furious. Each side of the record flowed together as a piece, although there were separate tracks. I really lack the vocabulary to describe the music, so I’m going to steal a quote from a review of Yr from DownBeat Magazine:
Tibbetts overdubs acoustic and electric instruments in a Hendrixian mindscape of production wizardry, often combining up to 20 guitars on one track. He layers the sound into breathtaking guitar choirs and intricate superstructures. His solos are twisting, singing journeys that evolve with the sense of spiritual awakening you’d hear in a Coltrane soprano run. After building to an exuberant climax that nears the breaking point, he supplants it with a plaintive acoustic guitar passage that initiates the next trip.
If that doesn’t make you want to listen to his music, then you cannot be my friend.
Tibbetts was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but is based in St. Paul, Minnesota. His first two albums were created and self-released. Yr was the second, but the first one I had heard. We had a copy at WPRB that had Tibbetts’ original pen and ink drawing (see above) as the cover—and I vaguely recall that it might have been personalized for the station (although in retrospect, maybe not by Tibbetts).
Later, Yr was re-released, with a different cover, by ECM records, a legendary jazz label known for a particular sound, and for recording its albums quickly. Tibbetts’ first album for the label was done in this manner, and was not a critical success. His later works, done more in his painstaking, time consuming way, were more successful.
I have to admit that I basically lost track of Tibbetts after I left college. I don’t remember hearing that first ECM release, and it wasn’t like there was a place to hear his style of music on the radio, even in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. His output slowed significantly after the 80s, and even more so in the 2000s, with his last album, Natural Causes released in 2010. He has also released two albums with Chöying Drolma, a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
A few years ago, an Australian music site, Guvera, briefly was allowing free, legal, downloads of certain music using a system that allowed the amassing of a huge number of credits for essentially clicking on advertisements. I downloaded hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs during this brief period, which ultimately ended when Guvera decided that it would become a streaming service (probably, because giving away thousands of downloads wasn't a viable business model). It did allow me to download a bunch of Tibbetts’ later music, which all sounds pretty good, although I admittedly haven’t given it a huge amount of attention. And it never again blew my head up the same way it did when I first heard Yr.