Ralph Towner: City Of Eyes (ECM 1388)

 

Ralph Towner
City Of Eyes

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano, synthesizer
Markus Stockhausen trumpet, piccolo trumpet, fluegelhorn
Paul McCandless oboe, English horn
Gary Peacock bass
Jerry Granelli drums, electronic drums
Recorded February 1986 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Digitally mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Recorded November 1988 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While there are, of course, plenty of great pieces to choose from Ralph Towner’s still-growing songbook, I find myself turning more and more to “Jamaica Stopover,” the swinging opener of this late-80s session from the singular guitarist amid a cadre of friends new and old as an introduction to the unenlightened. Picturesque and lively, it is an exemplary showcase of Towner’s melodic (to say nothing of his rhythmic) flair. It is one of a handful of classical solos on City Of Eyes, of which “Janet” is another standout. Each is a snapshot in sound that sings. In addition to Towner’s skills unaccompanied, we are also regaled by a touch of Oregon in the group pieces. These take forms as varied as Towner’s instrumental role, switching as he does from frets to keys a number of times throughout. “Cascades” is perhaps the most successful in this regard. Trumpeter Markus Stockhausen gilds its already fine edges with liquid metal, forging complementary lines to the Jon Hassell-like synthesizers in the background. Stockhausen also dialogues beautifully with Paul McCandless (here on English horn) amid the deft stitching of bassist Gary Peacock. Stockhausen finds himself gilded in turn in the title track. This swell of primal energy sparkles with Towner’s 12 sparkling strings, which carry on through the contemplative solo “Sipping The Past.” Aside from being a lovely blossom in its own right, this piece demonstrates Towner’s talent for shape and architecture. The fullness of these compositional instincts fleshes out into “Far Cry.” This rare trio turn features Towner at both the piano and 12-string and stands as one of his most attractive dreams to date. Drummer Jerry Granelli adds tasteful pointillism to “Sustained Release” before “Tundra” brings us again into Oregon territory, where Stockhausen’s cries speak of an ice age weaving its feathered carpets across the tundra.

The reigning masterstroke of this date, however, has to be “Les Douzilles,” which reprises Towner’s classical against a gallery of spirited ground lines from Peacock. Its sense of movement and emotiveness is deeply performed, and one cannot help but notice the joy that both musicians get out of the interaction. They play as if from behind a sheen of ecstatic nostalgia, Peacock dancing his way through a surprisingly narrow thematic space before settling in for a gentle rejoinder.

There is a rusticity in Towner’s playing that I have always supremely appealing. It is a style unafraid to be a little rough around the edges, for those frays and twangs give the music that much more character. City Of Eyes remains a full portrait of his wide-ranging abilities and is a must-have for any fan.

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