Downbeat, August 1999
Think of Steve Tibbetts’ musical world as a closely guarded enclave. His themes and methods are consistent and highly developed, but outsiders are infrequently admitted.
The music has evolved gradually as the guitarist selectively and thoughtfully incorporates external influences. In recent years, he’s absorbed musical elements from Indonesia, Tibet and Norway. Å (just say “ah”) successfully joins the hardingfele, a.k.a. hardanger fiddle, with Tibbetts’ distinctive, often beautiful constructions. Emblematic of Norwegian folk music, the hardingfele features four sympathetic strings that generate its characteristic microtones.
In Utne, Tibbetts recorded fiddlers Knut Hamre and Turid Spildo performing tunes inspired by traditional themes. Back home, he manipulated and processed the tapes adding rhythm tracks from percussionist Marc Anderson and bassist Anthony Cox, as well as acoustic guitar and samples.
Fidelity to Norwegian folk tradition is highly suspect, but Å fits very well within. the contemplative, acoustic vein of Tibbetts’ recordings. The cyclical melodies and edgy harmonies of the fiddles are always focal points of these arrangements. Tracks like “Spelar Guro” and “Huldrarmi” suggest dance rhythms and benefit from the support of Cox’s bass, though it’s well back in the mix. Tibbetts surrounds Hamre’s plaintive, bittersweet melodies with airy but subtly detailed musical environments. In these settings, the guitar offers continuity and warmth, though it’s rarely the center of attention.
This CD presents a curious context for the hardingfele, and the high, chilly sound of the fiddle will challenge the uninitiated listener. Given its limited expressive range, the hardingfele’s allure can wear thin over the course of 12 tracks.