Ralph Towner: My Foolish Heart (ECM 2516)

My Foolish Heart

Ralph Towner
My Foolish Heart

Ralph Towner classical guitar, 12-string guitar
Recorded February 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 3, 2017

Any new solo album from Ralph Towner is reason to celebrate. Even more so when you consider the guitarist and ECM veteran was just shy of his 76th birthday at the time of this recording. Not that one would know it by the joie de vivre that infuses even its quietest moments. In the opening “Pilgrim” we find Towner at his quintessential best, gluing a mosaic of disparate scales. There’s a domestic feeling to this piece, as if the occasional strums were the sounds of a straw broom moving across a wooden floor.

Towner’s playing can always be counted on for tactility, unafraid as he is to let details shine through. This is especially true of “I’ll Sing To You,” one of the set’s most melodic tunes, and in which every scrape of calloused fingers is captured in vivid close-up. As a composer, he excels in evoking a title’s movement or feeling. To wit: the sashaying gait of “Saunter” and the Baroque-inspired footwork of “Dolomiti Dance.” Of a kindred spirit are the two tracks featuring 12-string. Where “Clarion Call” is filled with stops and starts, thus working its magic through interruption of a spell, “Biding Time” echoes with reflective purpose.

Both “Shard” and “Rewind” are standbys from the Oregon songbook, and by their inclusion speak to the will of nostalgia. The latter tune ends the album with undulations of narrative. Before that we are treated to “Blue As In Bley.” Dedicated to Paul Bley, who passed away not long before Towner stepped into the studio, it’s a complex and finely wrought piece, which like the improvisations of its dedicatee cohere by magic of immediacy. A smattering of briefer pieces injects the discs of this musical spine with extra fluid. Of these, “Ubi Sunt” is a highlight for its choral beauty.

The title song by Victor Young has long been a source of inspiration for Towner, who revisits it here in humility. In his hands it feels like an old video watched in quiet ponderance. Every scene is a chance at renewal, proof that not only songs but also their interpreters can grow better with age.

Towner/Muthspiel/Grigoryan: Travel Guide (ECM 2310)

Travel Guide

Travel Guide

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Wolfgang Muthspiel electric guitar, voice
Slava Grigoryan classical and baritone guitars
Recorded August 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Travel Guide brings together Ralph Towner on classical and 12-string guitars, Wolfgang Muthspiel on electric guitar, and Slava Grigoryan on classical and baritone guitars. Representing the US, Austria, and Kazakhstan, respectively, the three came together in a 2005 tour that first brought their sound as a unit into undeniable perspective. The resulting trio builds on the integrity of every tune—in this case an even ten from Towner and Muthspiel. The two write with such kindred spirit that one needn’t even parse them, though characteristics familiar to Towner fans do give his music a distinctive arc. Ultimately, the lyrical improvising on all fronts turns every track into a matter of group belonging.

Travel Portrait
(Photo credit: Dániel Vass)

“The Henrysons” introduces a tone-setting spiral of ostinatos and leading lines in a mesh so organic that one might think these musicians had been playing together for as long as they have alone. The resonance of Muthspiel’s electric imbues the trio with a pianistic touch of magical realism throughout, especially in the title track, of which the uplifting prosody and luminescent harmonies make it a highlight. Muthspiel even lends his voice for a spell on “Amarone Trio,” evoking the instrumental singing of Nana Vasconcelos in the context of the Pat Metheny Group. But Muthspiel’s deepest achievement is his stellar writing, which spans the subdued wit of “Die Blaue Stunde” and the virtuosic “Nico und Mithra,” at moments sounding more like Towner than Towner. The latter’s unmistakable 12-string carves oars for “Windsong,” guiding a compact yet fully featured vessel down a moonlit river. Grigoryan has a standout solo here, his lyricism attuned to every negative space.

The brilliance of execution on each side of this equilateral triangle resides in timekeeping precision. Without it, so much of what is unwritten in Towner would be impossible to articulate. The fragile coloratura of “Father Time,” for instance, shows just how well the musicians understand the spirit of his texts. For indeed, Towner builds his lodgings on bedrock of language—a diary, if you will, of life’s unpredictable passage. His substantial “Duende” is the highest peak in this regard. Its impulses are every bit as linked as Towner’s solo “Tarry,” which turns toward the concluding “Museum of Light” with a cloudy but self-understanding heart.

Whether or not you’re a Towner aficionado, Travel Guide is a no-brainer for the ECM enthusiast. It requires no suitcase or ticket, only an open ear and an open road.

(To hear samples of Travel Guide, click here.)

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.

Ralph Towner: Time Line (ECM 1968)

Time Line

Ralph Towner
Time Line

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.

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?

Ralph Towner: ANA (ECM 1611)

Ralph Towner
ANA

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Recorded March 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The release of ANA marked the return of Ralph Towner the solo artist. Following the 17-year gap since his Solo Concert, the Washington-born guitarist/pianist/composer had certainly left behind some immense shoes to fill on that earlier masterpiece. Yet once the strains of “The Reluctant Bride” ladle their waters over our ears, we know that comparison is a dirty word. The depth of nocturnal energy bespeaks an artist of even deeper resolve, one who approaches his guitar pluralistically. The tenderness therein introduces us to a colorful mosaic of programming. Lobbing bright yellows over muted blues in “Tale of Saverio,” Towner looks skyward while never forgetting the earth that bore him. As in the music of Dino Saluzzi, we sense children and laughter mixed into a nostalgic cocktail. He then looks beyond the palette into the ethereal schemes of “Joyful Departure,” in which his field of dreams requires not building but a gaze that transcends life and fantasy put together. To this he adds hues “Green And Golden,” casting moods like chaff into the wind. Shades of Marc Johnson’s “Samurai Hee-Haw” haunt the ground line of “I Knew It Was You,” a reflective piece that presages the album’s most painterly strokes in “Les Douzilles” and contrasts the buzzing preparations of “Veldt” in an enchanting way. Towner ends with Seven Pieces for Twelve Strings. Like the album as a whole, it is a set of vignettes you want to linger before, to take in and appreciate. Between distant shimmers and proximate footsteps, he stretches a chain of thoughtful pauses unleashed by bursts of narrative activity.

On the whole a contemplative album that resonates with insight, ANA shows Towner at his most flexible, not so much plucking as bending the strings to the will of an unmistakable lyrical drive, and all with a comfort natural enough to sing without ever needing to part its lips.

Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock: A Closer View (ECM 1602)

A Closer View

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Gary Peacock double-bass
Recorded December 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If Oracle, the first ECM strictly duo collaboration between bassist Gary Peacock and guitarist Ralph Towner, was Mt. Kilimanjaro, this is Everest. Stepping out of the intimate cave of the former, these uncompromising sages wrap their oracular magic around a set of 12 (mostly) new tunes. Whereas before Peacock’s compositions were in prominence, now they recede in the relief of Towner’s, each a pebble of the larger whole. The sole exception is “Moor,” which cameos after its early appearance on Paul Bley with Gary Peacock. From that session it retains its drama, and like “Infrared” stretches the envelope to 16 strings. Yet for the most part the alchemy is introspectively, if robustly, adorned. In “Opalesque” we can’t help but take to the fluidity of Peacock’s abilities like a diver to the sea. It is an instinctive conversion, one that matches Towner depth for depth. “Viewpoint” is the shortest of these stories, and holds a magnifying glass to the trail of clues left by “Mingusiana.” A subtle and crawling allusion, it skates across decades of experience to serve us the past as if it were the present. The freer considerations of “Postcard To Salta” are notable for the percussive qualities they bring out in Towner’s playing against a solo from Peacock that flows like poetry. The bassist glows also in the hearth of “Beppo,” but not before the expository “Toledo” flows from Towner’s classical. This solo masterpiece is worth the album alone, and gives due relativity to the genetic mysteries of “Amber Captive” and the title track, which like a muslin curtain filters light with a crosshatching of nostalgic stains and scents: the very stuff of life.

This aching album moves on without us, bearing its pulse in the bones. It is a lift of the head in sunrise, a touch of the lips to forehead, a misty star shining through to the end of every dream. The drop may look far, but in such fatherly hands we know a single step will traverse it.

Ralph Towner: Lost And Found (ECM 1563)

Ralph Towner
Lost And Found

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Denney Goodhew sopranino, soprano, and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Marc Johnson double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded May 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

2001 was a difficult year. Aside from the tragic political tightrope we all were walking, I’d just come out of a relationship for which I’d uprooted myself, was now living in a place where I knew no one, and had taken to spending much of my time making friends online. One of these—an artist and socialite from Bali—and I became especially close through a shared love of music. At the time, the dividing cell culture that was my CD collection boasted about 1000 albums (400 of which were ECM), hers twice as much. One day I casually mentioned to her that I was listening to Ralph Towner’s Lost And Found. There was a pause in our chat window before she admitted that she’d been listening to the very same. Since then Lost And Found has lodged itself in my memory through the sheer (im)probability of this coincidence.

The music is equally rich with coincidence, drawing intersections between Towner’s classical and 12-string guitars, Marc Johnson’s upright, Jon Christensen’s palette of the drum, and the many reeds of Denney Goodhew in a surprise appearance—his first (and last) for the label since 1981’s First Avenue. Compositional credits are fairly well spread over fifteen dreamy tracks, with Towner taking half. The rounded insistence of “Harbinger,” for one, is a welcome introduction to his unique solo language, while the full quartet sound of “Élan Vital” pulls its simple carriage through a chain of emotional way stations. “Scrimshaw,” for another, describes his art in another word, for like its namesake it is a quiet and etching pursuit. Towner blows this dust into “Midnight Blue…Red Shift,” among an eclectic dash of Goodhew tunes that also includes his jaunty “Flying Cows” (insight into the cover’s land-bound pig, perhaps?). Johnson’s contributions are some of the session’s deepest. Whether it’s the shimmering refractions of “Col Legno” or the homeless groove of “Sco Cone,” his bare presence speaks to Towner’s all-inclusiveness. In the end, though, the guitarist’s waters run purest, flowing through descriptive scenes like “Tattler” on the way to “Taxi’s Waiting,” thereby ending the set with everyone accounted for.

An album to take on the road, for it is a road in and of itself—one that bridges gaps of solitude and, to this soul at least, whispers a small hope that we might all still be connected in this fallen age.

Andersen/Towner/Vasconcelos: If You Look Far Enough (ECM 1493)

 

If You Look Far Enough

Arild Andersen bass
Ralph Towner guitars
Nana Vasconcelos percussion
Audun Kleive snare drum
Recorded Spring 1988, July 1991, and February 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Arild Andersen

Manfred Eicher strikes gold with yet another inspired melding of musical minds. The microphones at ECM’s Rainbow Studio this time are privileged to witness an emotionally powerful session from bassist Arild Andersen, guitarist Ralph Towner, and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. The session begins with something of a title track in “If You Look.” From this swell of drones and metallic whispers comes “Svev,” a scintillating piece that finds Andersen in a buoyant mood. “For All We Know” is a stunningly gorgeous duet between him and Towner—a match made in heaven. Andersen’s tender spaces are the perfect sky for Towner to spread his careful, classical wings. “Backé” continues this intimate reflection, only now with Vasconcelos’s auguries providing a more focused berth for Towner’s spindly ruminations. Vasconcelos adds a vocal swoon for effect. These two tracks are the heart of the album and could continue for its full length if they wished. “The Voice” begins with Andersen’s sustained calls, drawn out like cloud wisps on the horizon and providing a long-forgotten plain for the rhythm and tackle of Vasconcelos’s well-traveled feet. Andersen dips into some electronic augmentations, sounding like an infant foghorn with melodic growing pains. “The Woman” is a beautiful little duet for percussion and bass that works its tender embrace one muscle of sentiment at a time. Andersen’s deft monologue of serpents and harmonics carries the conversation over into “The Place” at a more urgent pace, working sidelong into an inspiring spiral. “The Drink” is another transportive duet, swaying like a caravan transport in the unforgiving sun. Next is “Main Man,” which jumps back into the rhythmic deep end with some funkier vibes, while “A Song I Used To Play” is a slow and tender build to Towner’s 12-string ebullience. “Far Enough” is another haunting drone of spectral footsteps that brings us into “Jonah,” a bass solo that smiles with all the wonder of new life.

This album is something of a sleeper ECM hit and worth seeking out for fans of any and all of these musicians. Don’t pass it up.