Isthmus Review, November 20, 1998
Like A Prayer
At the Barrymore Theater, Tibbetts and his nuns open a window onto bliss
Review by Tom Laskin
Photo by Brian Ebner
Madison-bred guitarist Steve Tibbetts has always had his admirers. On self-produced discs from the mid-’70s and modestly budgeted efforts for the ECM label, he displayed a talent for mixing progressive jazz-rock guitar with Eastern rhythms and modes. However, nothing in his long career really prepared his admirers for Chö, his deft1997 collaboration with the Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma and a choir of nuns from her Katmandu monastery. The title of the set (which translates as “cutting”) refers to a body of ritual practice in which the nuns endeavor to sever their attachment to the self. Their chants aren’t really intended for the concert hall, and it’s to Tibbetts’ credit that he’s refrained from turning the nuns’ prayers into secular grooves. Last Sunday at the Barrymore Theatre, Tibbetts and his longtime percussionist, Marc Anderson, continued to display admirable restraint as they backed Choying Drolma and two other nuns who’d traveled from Nepal to tour Chö.
Dressed simply in saffron robes, the closely shorn nuns sat between the musicians on a raised platform. Before them stood a row of small votive candles that flickered each time they accompanied themselves with the hand bells and small, brightly colored drums.
Choying Drolma’s full, rather deep voice really has very little in common with the gruff, horripilating drones of Buddhist monks, and in concert she conveyed a plaintive innocence that’s only hinted at on Tibbetts’ recordings. On most tunes she sang a quavering lead line, then pulled back into the music as Tibbetts and Anderson mapped out ambient textures that occasionally riffed off her melody. Each time she and her sister nuns picked up their bells and tambors, the music took on a stately quality that at points was reminiscent of Chinese court music.
Even without the benefit of the choral backing that appears on the disc, the nuns’ music had considerable spiritual heft. The lulling cadences of “Ngani Tröma Parts 1 & 2″ were particularly affecting, and left ample room for Anderson to provide global accents with his tablas and tree of shiny gongs. There was no encore, and, frankly, none was needed. The window onto bliss that Tibbetts, Anderson and the nuns offered was treat enough.