Three guitarists head into the beautiful unknown. (Is it still jazz?)
By Chris Richards, Pop music critic, Washington Post · May 18, 2018
More than any other instrument, guitars remain the weapon of choice for exhibitionists, extroverts and showboats. With their fretboards facing outward toward the audience, guitar players are those musical birds of paradise who invite us to listen by saying, “Hey, watch this.” That must be why we continue to venerate the guitar as an instrument for truth-telling. When you’re in the presence of an unbelievable guitar player, you can instantly confirm the experience with two of your five Aristotelian senses.
Jazz guitarists, on the other hand, tend to do more mysterious work, as evidenced by a cool rush of new recordings by Mary Halvorson, Rafiq Bhatia and Steve Tibbetts. And while all three make beguiling guitar music — ahem — is it jazz? That’s a question that won’t be killed, so whenever it materializes, I recite a little mantra that the critic Ben Ratliff wrote back in 2002: “Jazz is what jazz musicians do.” But like any great koan, it generates more questions. Do Halvorson, Bhatia and Tibbetts consider themselves jazz musicians? And does that even matter? Nowadays, maybe jazz is whatever jazz audiences are listening to. And if they’re not listening to these three, they’re missing out.
Halvorson is the most talked-about rising jazz guitarist since Kurt Rosenwinkel, and here’s what everybody’s saying: she studied with the famously cerebral improviser Anthony Braxton; her playing can feel equally forthright and unpredictable; and her most recent album, “Code Girl,” calmly marches into new turf for a disorienting 90 minutes. For the first time, Halvorson has built this new music around piles of cryptic lyrics that she’s written, inviting vocalist Amirtha Kidambi to deliver them in a voice that somehow feels both emotive and flat, while trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each bring a delicate touch to Halvorson’s inside-out chamber music.
But the guitar is always the thing to listen for, and really, you don’t have much choice. Whenever Halvorson sounds a note, she makes it stand up straight, generating a centralizing lucidity in compositions that otherwise feel wobbly and weird. Even when she runs her electric guitar through effects — warped echoes, peach-fuzz distortion — her shifts in texture never obscure her gestures. If anything. she’s putting a fresh twist on the idea of guitar-as-truth-machine. When a guitarist plays this unambiguously, you get to see how strange the music really is.
When Bhatia runs his guitar through digital effects, the flood of sound that comes pouring out can resemble science fiction on a blockbuster scale. Much of the guitarist’s new album, “Breaking English,” feels loud and foreboding, pushing toward the same vistas where today’s most innovative rap producers currently reside. Bhatia came up playing alongside some great jazz pianists — including Vijay Iyer and David Virelles — but he’s obviously fluent in the maximal majesty of 21st-century rap. A few years ago, he was spending his practice hours transposing Kendrick Lamar lyrics onto his Telecaster.
Now, Bhatia’s ambitions seem more cosmic. Recently, he told the New York Times that “Breaking English” is meant to evoke “what it would be like to fly over an undiscovered planet.” That feels exactly right in the case of “Perihelion II — Into the Sun,” where Bhatia’s twinkling phrases dance above tiny swells of digital turbulence. But during the menacing drone of “Olduvai I — Minarets,” it’s more like Bhatia is drilling into the floor of an alien ocean.
Instead of conjuring other worlds, Tibbetts has spent the past 40 years trying to figure out what this one sounds like in its entirety — a quiet, noble quest for one of the most underappreciated musicians of our time. Across the 1980s, during an extraordinary four-album run for the legendary jazz label ECM, the Minneapolis guitarist was using percussion, electronics and his 12-string acoustic guitar to make highly evocative music with astonishing nuance. Tibbetts was deeply interested in the rhythms of Africa, India and Asia, but the worldliness of his recordings always felt like a mysterious mix of scientific exploration and spiritual quest more than a tourist’s flirtation.
Tibbetts’ exquisite new album, “Life Of,” is his strongest since 1989’s superb “Big Map Idea,” and is easily the most elegant of his career. Accompanied by longtime percussionist Marc Anderson and cellist Michelle Kinney, Tibbetts plays only with his fingertips — no pick — applying both hands to his fretboard, making his notes gently drip and streak.
Instead of advancing forward, this music simply obeys gravity. Forget about jazz, forget about guitars. “Life Of” should make beautiful sense to anyone on this vast and unknowable Earth who’s ever spent time listening to the rain.