Release date: April 1, 1984
Guitarist Ralph Towner, like saxophonist Jan Garbarek (with whom he often collaborated during this formative phase), is one of ECM’s perennial talents and set a precedent for the label unlike any other on Solstice. Over the decades, the 1975 classic has acquired even more integrity than it exhibited when first released. “Oceanus” opens both it and this sensitively curated compilation, combining forces with Eberhard Weber, Jon Christensen, and Garbarek himself. It is perhaps the only logical first step with which to begin any foray into Towner’s universe. Weber’s cello, in combination with his plucked bass backbone, is an enchantment in and of itself, and elevates Towner’s resonating strings to nearly the same level as Garbarek’s tenor. Christensen’s sunlit cymbals complete the image. “Nimbus” finds Towner adding his piano to the mix. A patient intro unleashes the band’s total effect, Weber treading exuberantly across Christensen’s passionate soil.
The second album to be referenced is 1983’s Blue Sun, a solo effort from which two selections are presented. The title track features Towner on piano, Prophet 5 synthesizer, and percussion, alongside his trusted 12-string, for a nostalgic Polaroid that develops before our very ears. This is music that moves us, because it is movement in and of itself. “The Prince And The Sage” recalibrates the array to Prophet 5 and classical guitar only. Tracing a parabola over cities, villages, and waterways, it blends tastefully and in a way that would be unrepeatable with today’s ingredients.
Last we have two tracks from 1979’s Old Friends, New Friends. “New Moon” features Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn), David Darling (cello), Eddie Gomez (bass), and Michael DiPasqua (drums and percussion). If anything, it’s a memorable vehicle for Wheeler, who soars over landless expanse. “Beneath The Evening Sky” makes another reduction, this time to Towner’s 12-string and Darling’s cello. The latter unfolds a string quartet’s worth of backing in this deeply psychological character study.
And while there is some gold unmined in this collection, especially with regard to my all-time favorite Towner album, Solo Concert, there’s enough here to both satiate the hungry ear and inspire exploration for more.