Ralph Towner/Paolo Fresu: Chiaroscuro (ECM 2085)

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro

Ralph Towner classical, 12-string and baritone guitars
Paolo Fresu trumpet, flugelhorn
Recorded October 2008 at Artesuono Recording Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ralph Towner describes his first encounter with Paolo Fresu at a festival in Sardinia: “I didn’t know him at all then, but from the very first phrase that he played, I thought: This guy really understands melodies!” Surely, we can say the same about both musicians once the first bars of “Wistful Thinking” lay the corner pieces of the ensuing puzzle, establishing with them a language of tasteful ornament. If the overall effect feels nostalgic, it’s because the track reprises material from Open Letter, an even more unusual pairing that found Towner in the company of drummer Peter Erskine. Another, “Zephyr,” was last heard on Oregon’s Ecotopia and shows in this duo version an even barer creative process at work.

Towner and Fresu

More to the point, Chiaroscuro is an album of balanced architecture, each tune an archway held strong by a melodic keystone. The title track, for one, turns like a windmill in April, sprouting with fractal energy that integrates the musicians in the same way that light and shadow dance in the cover photograph. There is always something of one in the other, even in the solo passages. Whether navigating Miles Davis’s undying “Blue In Green” (the only non-Towner piece of the program) or the propulsive “Punta Giara,” the dance of Towner’s earth tones and Fresu’s hints of sunrise maintains a robust meridian.

The guitarist’s rhythms are so compact that it’s refreshing to hear a partner drawing melodic threads through them without getting buried. In “Doubled Up” especially, Towner’s busy fingerwork would seem to shelter no room for interpretation, yet finds harmony in the trumpeter’s muted approach. Deeper still are the contrasts of “Sacred Place,” a chromatic solo piece from Towner that finds haunting reprise with Fresu’s unforced elaborations. These three tracks also make use of the baritone guitar, a low-tuned instrument new to Towner’s toolkit.

For balance (in both content and form), a dash of improvisations rounds out the session, slinging Fresu high above Towner’s incandescent 12-string. Pliant yet unflinching in its integrity, this is music that is organic by design.

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