Ralph Towner guitar
Recorded September 2005 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Ralph Towner has left many indelible fingerprints along his trail of solo guitar albums, yet none so transcendent as by the acoustics of St. Gerold. The Austrian monastery has long served as recording venue of choice for the Hilliard Ensemble and other ECM New Series acts. The magnification engendered by its architecture serves only to bring out the expanse of Towner’s jazzier vocabulary, which somehow comes across all the more intimately. Exhibit A: “The Pendant.” Its lilting chromatism patterns itself like breathing, dripping just as involuntarily from Towner’s hands. Its reflective classical guitar evokes a veritable photo album of places and faces. Towner traces the flurry of sunlit arpeggios that make up his “Oleander Etude,” for instance, back to memories of Sicily, where oleanders grow in plenitude by the roadside, recreated here by the piece’s traveling speed. Other Sicily-inspired pieces are “Anniversary Song” (written for his wife, actress Mariella Lo Sardo), “Turning Of The Leaves” (written in collaboration with singer Maria Pia De Vito), and “The Lizards Of Eraclea,” which despite its evocative title has little at all to do with lizards. In contrast, “Always By Your Side” takes direct inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for a production of which Towner once wrote it as incidental music—although, as he recalls, it feels more like Broadway than Elizabethan theatre. Like so much of the disc, it takes on its own life, dripping sweetness into the ear even as the heart proclaims it within. Whatever the original associations might have been, the truth of these pieces begins here.
Whereas Towner often allows for improvisation, “The Hollows” is through-composed. Its warped harmonies cohere by a strange geometry, which by the end reveals itself to be balanced and assured. “Five Glimpses,” on the other hand, is a collection of entirely improvised vignettes that arose during the recording process. Each is a window into Towner’s mind at work and switches from diaristic meditation to tense poetry at the drop of a pin. The final glimpse is all of 25 seconds of finger tapping, as magical as it is fleeting. Somewhere between the two is “If.” Towner interprets it as a self-contained call and response, whereby the language of the piece emerges through melodic parthenogenesis. Indeed, its shape is almost helical, a strand of DNA floating through its own dream on a cloud. Even as one of the busier pieces of the set, it wants not for breathing room.
“Come Rain Or Come Shine” is one of two standards on the album once favored by Bill Evans, an early influence on Towner. This one, by Harold Arlen (most famous for “Over the Rainbow”), is another nimble turn from Towner, who carves through it a maze with many solutions. The other standard is George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which, like Towner’s chromatic “Freeze Frame” that precedes it, is played on the 12-string guitar. Both pieces employ a nonstandard tuning that inks the waters. From the Gershwin especially, it teases out a shade of blue hitherto absent.
With his usual solitary, tactile quality, Towner has created a real artifact in sound. Meticulously designed and played, its arching motifs and rhythms come across with photographic assurance, so that one may return to them time and again, knowing they will never change.