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.

Gary Peacock/Ralph Towner: Oracle (ECM 1490)

Gary Peacock
Ralph Towner
Oracle

Gary Peacock double-bass
Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars
Recorded May 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With so much virtuosity living inside bassist Gary Peacock and guitarist Ralph Towner, one might expect from this duo a showcase of lively showmanship. And while this it most certainly is at heart, on the whole we are given an understated album recorded out of deepest respect for its listeners. The improv is robust yet tender and marked by a distinct patina around the edges. Above all, however, I find the playing to be forward thinking and worldly. Peacock and Towner bring a cartographer’s care to tracks like “Gaya” and “Inside Inside.” Programmatic energies abound in “Flutter Step” and “Burly Hello,” each speaking as if behind cupped hands into the ears of a secret joy, while the turns of “Empty Carrousel” resolve into a hazy picture that blurs even as it develops. “Hat And Cane” gives us a happy-go-lucky reprieve, its effervescent licks crossing the postcard of “St. Helens” into the title track. What begins as a quiet breathing exercise turns full somersaults for the album’s most intense unions. Finishing with “Tramonto,” we find the duo at its emotive best.

Oracle is like the ocean: we know its overall shape but the movement of every wave is at the whim of something unseen that flows through all of us.

Ralph Towner: Open Letter (ECM 1462)

 

Ralph Towner
Open Letter

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars, synthesizer
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded July 1991 and February 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It might be tempting to dismiss this Ralph Towner effort as New Age fluff, but the music is so gorgeous that any such considerations fall to the wayside. Yet the wayside is precisely where Towner sets his sights, which is to say that his interest lies in edges where musical idioms meet. He explores these lines, not unlike the blotted cover, with an ease of diction at the fret board that is recognizable and comforting. Drummer Peter Erskine shares the bill, but Towner adds a few synth touches for broader effect, as in “The Sigh,” which opens the session in a cleft of fluid energy.

There are two sides to this album. One is resplendent, exemplified in the congregation of 12-string and cymbals that is “Adrift.” This resonant vessel shares waters with “Magic Pouch” and “Alar” (a tympani-infused concoction that is one of Towner’s finest), both of which blossom in a tropical climate and funnel their tide-swept secrets into “Magniola Island.” Any possible tourist traps therein are elided by Towner’s ever-imaginative picking.

The other side comes through Towner’s solos. The jazzy riffs of “Short’n Stout” pair well with the intimate geographies of “Waltz For Debby,” while the blissful “I Fall In Love Too Easily” lobs us into the goodness of “Nightfall.”

Towner is as astute as ever in his execution. Whether it’s a standard or his own musical vision, we get the feeling that everything he plays is an open letter.

Ralph Towner: City Of Eyes (ECM 1388)

 

Ralph Towner
City Of Eyes

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano, synthesizer
Markus Stockhausen trumpet, piccolo trumpet, fluegelhorn
Paul McCandless oboe, English horn
Gary Peacock bass
Jerry Granelli drums, electronic drums
Recorded February 1986 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Digitally mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Recorded November 1988 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While there are, of course, plenty of great pieces to choose from Ralph Towner’s still-growing songbook, I find myself turning more and more to “Jamaica Stopover,” the swinging opener of this late-80s session from the singular guitarist amid a cadre of friends new and old as an introduction to the unenlightened. Picturesque and lively, it is an exemplary showcase of Towner’s melodic (to say nothing of his rhythmic) flair. It is one of a handful of classical solos on City Of Eyes, of which “Janet” is another standout. Each is a snapshot in sound that sings. In addition to Towner’s skills unaccompanied, we are also regaled by a touch of Oregon in the group pieces. These take forms as varied as Towner’s instrumental role, switching as he does from frets to keys a number of times throughout. “Cascades” is perhaps the most successful in this regard. Trumpeter Markus Stockhausen gilds its already fine edges with liquid metal, forging complementary lines to the Jon Hassell-like synthesizers in the background. Stockhausen also dialogues beautifully with Paul McCandless (here on English horn) amid the deft stitching of bassist Gary Peacock. Stockhausen finds himself gilded in turn in the title track. This swell of primal energy sparkles with Towner’s 12 sparkling strings, which carry on through the contemplative solo “Sipping The Past.” Aside from being a lovely blossom in its own right, this piece demonstrates Towner’s talent for shape and architecture. The fullness of these compositional instincts fleshes out into “Far Cry.” This rare trio turn features Towner at both the piano and 12-string and stands as one of his most attractive dreams to date. Drummer Jerry Granelli adds tasteful pointillism to “Sustained Release” before “Tundra” brings us again into Oregon territory, where Stockhausen’s cries speak of an ice age weaving its feathered carpets across the tundra.

The reigning masterstroke of this date, however, has to be “Les Douzilles,” which reprises Towner’s classical against a gallery of spirited ground lines from Peacock. Its sense of movement and emotiveness is deeply performed, and one cannot help but notice the joy that both musicians get out of the interaction. They play as if from behind a sheen of ecstatic nostalgia, Peacock dancing his way through a surprisingly narrow thematic space before settling in for a gentle rejoinder.

There is a rusticity in Towner’s playing that I have always supremely appealing. It is a style unafraid to be a little rough around the edges, for those frays and twangs give the music that much more character. City Of Eyes remains a full portrait of his wide-ranging abilities and is a must-have for any fan.

Ralph Towner/Gary Burton: Slide Show (ECM 1306)

 

Slide Show

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
Gary Burton vibraphone, marimba
Recorded May 1985 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When one thinks of pairing vibraphonist Gary Burton with another soloist, Chick Corea comes foremost to mind. Burton’s work with guitarist Ralph Towner could hardly be more different, for where the former configuration funnels into a colorful storm of activity, in the latter we find far more intimate gestures articulated in monochrome. Case in point: “Maelstrom,” which starts us on the inside, spinning on its edge like a coin teetering at the promise of rest. Towner is as delicate as ever, fitting his harmonic staircases into Burton’s Escherian architecture with ease. This piece also highlights Towner’s compositional talents, which make up eight of the album’s nine tracks (the only exception being the slice of sonic apple pie that is “Blue In Green”). Towner and Burton frequently swap roles (“Vessel” being one notable example) and do so with seamless charm. Between the waking dawn of “Innocenti,” which features a rare turn from Burton on marimba, and the flurried “Around The Bend,” there is plenty of range to delight and calm the senses in turn. In the latter vein, we have “Beneath An Evening Sky,” a canvas of hues as muted as its title would suggest. The combination of Towner’s twinkling 12-string and Burton’s “vibrant” aurora lures us into a life of fantasy, where “The Donkey Jamboree,” a jocular ditty comprised of slack guitar and marimba, gives us a taste of sand and sunlight. “Continental Breakfast” (compliments of the Hotel Hello?) keeps the energy going in a travelogue of morning train rides, while “Charlotte’s Tangle” loosens the seams of the sky above.

This follow-up to the duo’s 1975 Matchbook is every bit as lovely as its predecessor, only this time around the atmospheres are deeper, richer with detail. Worthy.

Ralph Towner: Blue Sun (ECM 1250)

 

Ralph Towner
Blue Sun

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano, synthesizer, French horn, cornet, percussion
Recorded December 1982 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If there were ever any doubts as to Ralph Towner’s consummate abilities, though one would need to travel far to encounter them, they can only have been put to rest with the release of Blue Sun. A near highpoint in Towner’s extensive discography, it might have shared the summit of 1980’s Solo Concert were it not for a few frayed threads. Towner’s compositions are already so harmonically dense in their solo form that other instruments merely externalize what is already so internally apparent to them, so that the intimate pickings of “The Prince And The Sage,” “Mevlana Etude,” and “Wedding Of The Streams” hover most clearly before our ears. At the same time, there is something skeletal about his playing that cries for flesh. Not for want of completeness, nor out of lack, but rather through the his balance and inward posture, a flower-like duplicity that embraces both blooming and wilting in the same breath.

Among the potpourri of instruments that Towner plays here, his Prophet 5, while nostalgic, sometimes gets in the way. It seems unnecessary, and evokes more the novelty of using one when his talents on so many other acoustic options were readily available to him. These “unnatural” sounds turn a concave sound into a glaringly convex one. “C.T. Kangaroo” in particular, while playful enough, jumps out as an anomaly in the album’s otherwise majestic mood. The lack of guitar also renders it incongruous. Elsewhere, however, synth textures do blend nicely, as in the floating pianism of the opening title track, and in “Rumours Of Rain,” to which a French horn adds vocal depth. “Shadow Fountain” also makes adept use of electronic textures, bubbling like water on a sunny day.

Towner fans will want to check this one out for sure, but newbies may want to hold off.

Ralph Towner/John Abercrombie: Five Years Later (ECM 1207)

1207 X

Ralph Towner
John Abercrombie
Five Years Later

Ralph Towner classical and 12-string guitars
John Abercrombie acoustic guitar, 12-string electric guitar, mandolin
Recorded March 1981 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

John Abercrombie is unique among guitarists in that whenever he becomes enraptured his sound becomes neither louder nor more pronounced but becomes somehow mysterious, liberated. Ralph Towner, on the other hand, revels in the crackling ruptures that so characterize his playing. Yet these roles seem reversed in this follow-up to the duo’s Sargasso Sea. A far more fragile carnation than its predecessor, it seems to forego the usual bag of tricks in favor of something more, as the album’s title would imply, reflective. This is especially apparent in the three improvisations with which the set list is dotted, and nowhere more so than in “Late Night Passenger,” where Abercrombie’s laddered filaments provide stunning berth for the other’s muted, jangling starlight.

As for composed pieces, Towner offers three, Abercrombie two. Among the former’s, the all-acoustic “Half Past Two” is a vibrating rib cage of biographical energies, and the most comely track on the album. The attraction continues with “Caminata” and on through the whimsy of “The Juggler’s Etude.” Abercrombie’s “Child’s Play” pairs electric and classical for a complementary sound, Towner’s shallower accents the caps on Abercrombie’s resonant stalks. Child’s play it may be in name, but in execution it is anything but. Yet it is in “Isla” that the reverie reaches new depths, the musicians’ negotiation of lead and backing effortlessly egalitarian. Such reciprocity is the keystone that keeps this arch from crumbling.

<< Gallery: s/t (ECM 1206)
>> Lande/Samuels/McCandless: Skylight (ECM 1208)

Ralph Towner: Solo Concert (ECM 1173)

ECM 1173

Ralph Towner
Solo Concert

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars
Recorded October 1979, Amerika Haus, München and Limmathaus, Zürich
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ralph Towner’s Solo Concert holds a special place in my ECM-adoring heart, for it was my introduction to a guitarist whose skills have since become staples of my listening life. Lovingly recorded in the open concert spaces of Munich and Zurich, Solo Concert is to the guitar what Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert is to the piano. It’s that good.

Towner’s own compositions make up the bulk of the album. The opening “Spirit Lake” is the most transcendent of these and exemplifies Towner’s craft as both technician and melodic wellspring. Notes drip from his 12-string with shimmering lucidity, dipping below every motif it can swing from as it blossoms into a brilliant flourish of an ending. What at first seems an abstract improvisational exercise in “Train Of Thought” reveals the instrument’s hidden voices, in which a pulsing bass lingers and harmonic clusters soar. The staggered melodies and banjo-like articulations of “Zoetrope” contrast superbly with “Chelsea Courtyard,” in which dissonant arpeggios lie in the grass, above which the clouds are so thin they’re barely visible, and motivations even more so. Still, the music offers more than enough provocation as nostalgias flit by the windows of our attention, the curtains of which Towner opens to let in the light of a half-remembered day.

Towner also lays his hands on a pocketful of sparkling covers. Of these, the two by John Abercrombie—“Ralph’s Piano Waltz” and “Timeless”—are notable for their use of thumbed anchors, which provide a ghostly counterpoint to wider runs in the upper registers. Lilting syncopations trade places with jazzier throwbacks, packing melodic energy into increasingly compact cells. Yet it is with “Nardis” (Davis/Evans) that Towner truly enthralls. Played on classical guitar, it is a vivid standout that jumps headfirst into its themes before unraveling them in a blissful wave. Towner’s deft harmonies and prowess at the fingerboard leap with the precision of synchronized swimmers about to clinch a gold.

This is an intelligently assembled program of complementary music that shows the depth and breadth of Towner’s abilities more than any single disc. My only complaint is the applause that breaks the spell of every piece when it ends. Then again, I’d have done the same had I been there.

If you’ve ever wondered just how high a guitar can fly, then here’s your plane ticket.

<< Keith Jarrett: Nude Ants (ECM 1171/72)
>> Keith Jarrett: Sacred Hymns of G. I. Gurdjieff (ECM 1174)

Ralph Towner: Old Friends, New Friends (ECM 1153)

ECM 1153

Ralph Towner
Old Friends, New Friends

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano, French horn
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Eddie Gomez bass
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
David Darling cello
Recorded July 1979 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This set of six extended pieces—each penned by Ralph Towner—is like the flipside of his classic Solstice. From the moment we step into its sound-world with the resplendent 12-string of “New Moon,” we know this will be a path from which we may never wish to stray. Towner’s unexpected French horn adds shading and depth to his already gossamer billows, leaving the fluegelhorn of Kenny Wheeler to snake through Michael DiPasqua’s lucid drumming as the unmistakable cello stylings of David Darling arise from the depths of our expectations. Darling, a personal favorite among ECM-represented artists, proves to be a welcome, if nearly ineffable, presence. One hears shades of his classic Darkwood unfolding like a meandering dream in “Yesterday And Long Ago,” while “Beneath An Evening Sky” weaves twelve strings through six over his ornamental crosshatchings.

Not unlike the album as a whole, “Celeste” forges an uplifting sort of melancholy, heard in Towner’s heartwarming pianism and in Wheeler’s boldly sketched lines. Moments of sheer majesty quickly succumb to underlying reveries, awaiting the “Special Delivery” of Eddie Gomez’s vocally infused commentary. This leaves only “Kupala,” which shows off Towner’s fine muting technique, brushed drums adding a touch of age. Running his fingernails along the edge of this sonic quarter, Towner opens the floor to a magic that only the listener can supply.

I know it’s nothing new to say, but albums like this always put me in awe of jazz, an art form in which a musician can surrender oneself so freely to the musical moment and yet just as easily anchor oneself in explicitly composed material. Likewise, Towner’s music, and especially that collected here, is something into which one can read experiences that are at once rooted in the physical world and firmly bound to a realm where physicality is a myth. Like its own mythology, it is creation and dissolution made one. It ends in a slow fall, laying itself down like a flower upon its own grave.

<< Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM 1152)
>> Old And New Dreams: s/t (ECM 1154)