John Abercrombie/Ralph Towner: Sargasso Sea (ECM 1080)

John Abercrombie
Ralph Towner
Sargasso Sea

John Abercrombie electric and acoustic guitars
Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano
Recorded May, 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was often raining when I woke during the night, a light capricious shower, dancing playful rain, or hushed muted, growing louder, more persistent, more powerful, an inexorable sound. But always music, a music I had never heard before.
–Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Given the contrasting but strikingly compatible talents of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, this album was bound to happen sooner or later. The aptly titled “Fable” best describes what these two musicians achieve together, for theirs is a tale that sounds as if it were written long ago, coalescing out of life’s improvisations into a memorable narrative. Its pairing of Towner’s 12-string with Abercrombie’s electric represents the duo in its most melodically satisfying comfort zone. We get more of the same in the title track, an uncertain travail with hints of soliloquies caressing our ears from either side, and in the relatively explosive moments of “Elbow Room.” Abercrombie opts for an echo effect here, the pulse of which dictates the piece’s rhythmic trajectory. And while I do think the effect weakens the track as its pathos becomes clearer, Towner compensates its contrivance with some flamenco-like body taps. “Staircase” features classical guitar and Abercrombie’s more directly amplified electric in the album’s most carefully realized blend of sound and circumstance. Towner then leaps to his 12-string amid Abercrombie’s own ascendant doodling. A few all-acoustic tracks enliven the mix, of which “Romantic Descension” is the loveliest. The final track, “Parasol,” is a triangular affair between 12-string, electric guitar, and Towner’s overdubbed piano.

Sargasso Sea is an enchanting reverie that has stood the test of time, and with an attractive patina to show for it. Like a kiss in deepening twilight, it loses its physical shape and becomes pure sensation, lost in the placation of a distant slumber.

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