Ralph Towner: Anthem (ECM 1743)

Anthem

Ralph Towner
Anthem

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Recorded February 2000 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Once the luminescent 12-string of Ralph Towner opens the ears to the thoughts of “Solitary Woman” (aka “Alia’s Theme,” composed for the 1992 film Un’altra vita), there’s no turning away from the guitarist’s captivation. Towner’s ability to tell a story is uncanny: we know his characters as if they were ourselves but are at pains to describe them in retrospect. His is a music that must be lived, and relived, to be known. The modal approach of the album’s opening gambit proves revelatory in its percussive and emotive variety and compresses so much of what marks Towner’s mastery into one piece. Like nearly the rest of the album, it looks back also to an adroit compositional mind, one that recognizes the equal value of improvisation as a tool of expression.

Most the album features classical guitar. The title track gives solemn praise to the musical act itself. The sweep of Towner’s evocative sensibility is compass-like. Down the helical twirl of love and loss that is “Haunted,” he slides into “The Lutemaker.” Something of a sonic equivalent to James Cowan’s novel A Mapmaker’s Dream, it is a concise yet somehow beautifully varicose embodiment of its subject matter. It feels so real one can almost smell the workspace, hear the luthier’s plane singing. “Simone” is another of the album’s mysterious figures, her face familial yet also obscured by the ripple of shadow that she wears like the night. “Gloria’s Step,” by the tragically short-lived Scott LaFaro, is yet another and links Towner back to the Bill Evans circle in which he trained. It receives a studious and impassioned rendering at Towner’s fingertips and leads into the gallery of “Four Comets,” which along with “Three Comments” comprises one of two handfuls of sparkling miniatures. The former’s six-stringed sky becomes the latter’s 12-stringed loom, both spaces through which creative shuttles weave their constellations for others to decipher.

“Raffish” is a perfect example of Towner’s crystalline brand of jazz, at once deferential to past masters (hence the album’s title) and overtly countercultural in its sometimes-overwhelming optimism. The angularity here is refreshing. “Very Late” is another architecturally sound track. Its title bleeds from the music and reaches a steadying hand toward “The Prowler,” a programmatic gem. “Goodbye, Pork-Pie Hat” reprises the 12-string one last time, bringing the album back to its resonant beginnings in an especially intimate rendering of this classic Charles Mingus tune.

There is a depth of refrain in Towner’s music, and on Anthem it is alive with a direct philosophy that feeds also into the engineering. It is, quite simply, one of the finest solo guitar recordings to come out of ECM’s studios. Its balance of distance, finger action, and breath control is as erudite as that of the artist it documents. When medium and message are so well unified, who could ask for more?

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