Towner is a rare guitarist who foregoes any superfluous displays or idiomatic crutches and focuses on the music, an acoustic blend of jazz, quasi-classical, euro-folk, and lots of original pieces that defy category. His style has not so much progressed over the years as it has spread concentrically from an aesthetic center he established long ago. It’s not surprising that Towner took up guitar after he was a pianist, because his fretboard has the range of a keyboard. His fingerstyle prowess on both classical and 12-string guitars is marvelous, and it’s so tastefully employed that Towner circumvents the technique fetish that often trumps musical purpose in the guitar world. (I.e., the adolescent proving ground of “can you play that?” Trickster axemen nurture that mentality. In listening to Towner, the question is completely irrelevant.) I don’t mean to suggest that every album of his is therefore superior; it’s just that his playing never falls prey to flash or cheapness. Below, I have a sampling of Towner’s large solo discography on ECM, and he can also be heard in the world-jazz-folk group Oregon.
Oct. 1979 / ECM
A good sample of Towner in action, alternating between classical and 12-string guitars. From the spacious trip of “Spirit Lake” to the jazz classic “Nardis”, Towner is continually inventive and self-sustaining. In “Ralph’s Piano Waltz”, he plays with clarity in all registers, sometimes sounding like two guitars. (The same happens in a rich rendition of “Nardis”.) The consonance of “Zoetrope” and John Abercrombie’s “Timeless” sits Towner in the Americana seat of bittersweet reflection, and both are elegant enough to avoid potential boredom. Only in “Train of Thought” and “Chelsea Courtyard” are the premises so light that one’s left simply admiring the sparkle of the strings. The main thing that comes across in listening to Towner how honest he is in translating improvisational inspiration, rather than dazzling just for the sake of it. This album could use a pillar of strength somewhere in the middle, as it is a bit light overall, yet it still comes to mind as a great guitar album.
Bassist Gary Peacock is a perfect match for Towner because he has the same quick melodic sense and he can underscore the guitar in a complementary way. Peacock is actually first billed on this duet album and writes the majority of material, from downcast etudes (“Gaya”, “Empty Carrousel”) to brighter experiments (“Inside Inside”) to neo-blues (“Burly Hello”). Towner’s contributions are the snazzy “Hat and Cane” and the lovely ballad “Tramonto”. The title track sounds like it’s just barely a sketch, and somehow they get seven minutes of conversation out of it. “Flutter Step” is more fleet-footed, with a regimented theme and a jazzy breeze to the guitar solo. The interplay on everything is intimate and open-ended. Support can turn into counterpoint at any moment, and the instruments sometimes swap their usual roles. Minus drums and wires, the music doesn’t grab the ears forcefully but the empathy of the players is substantial.
This program mixes solo guitar pieces with several duo, trio, and quartet tracks. Bassist Marc Johnson is the most involved apart from the leader (and even gets a solo track in “Sco Cone”), while reedist Denney Goodhew and drummer Jon Christensen are deployed more selectively. The two best quartet tracks are “Elan Vital” (a pastoral jig coaxed by magnificent drumming) and the smirky noir-jazz “Flying Cows”, laden with baritone sax and Towner’s scrambling 12-string. Johnson is no Peacock, but he and Ralph bond well in “Trill Ride” and elsewhere. The moods of the album roam from reflection (the guitar ‘n bass “Moonless”) to the innocent, propulsive joy of “Taxi Waiting”, with a few stranger vignettes (like “Col Legno” and the piercing “Midnight Blue”) mixed in. As mentioned, Towner includes several solo explorations, mostly on nylon string, like the wonderful “Harbinger”, the quietly complex “A Breath Away”, and the appropriately named “Tattler”, where dissonant intervals have a taunting effect. Lost and Found is pretty enjoyable, and the playing is never less than exquisite, but the downside is that a couple of segments blur into background music, like “Mon Enfant” (beautiful but reserved), and the sickly sweet “Summer’s End”, topped with smooth jazz soprano.
Not released until 1998, this session reunites Towner with bassist Gary Peacock for a successor to Oracle. The serene “Opalesque” starts things off with Towner exploring a major-seventh progression over gentle bass figures, and “Viewpoint” posits a brief guitar theme that will be more fully explored on the closing title track. The first hint of fire comes in “Mingusiana”, essentially a bass solo bookended by a meditative waltz. Both characters established, then comes a sequence of tunes that exploit the angularity of the duet setting. “Creeper” explores a displaced motif and finds creative underpinning from Peacock in the improv. The most daring track is probably “Infrared”, a close-listen conversation involving Towner’s sharp 12-string. The unpredictability continues into “From Branch to Branch”, where Towner’s skipping melody lives up to the tune’s title and Peacock works some rapid ostinatos into the mix.
“Postcard to Salta” initiates a move toward song-based pieces, including the classical guitar showcase “Toledo”, another in Ralph’s long line of solo gems. “Amber Captive” is a sad little reverie. Peacock gets an unaccompanied spot at the front of “Moor”, an otherwise nondescript track. The shining moment is “Beppo”, where the duo embellishes a sequence of catchy guitar motifs. From the chord melodies to the sly tag, “Beppo” is a sophisticated treat. So is the whole album, minus a couple of murky bits.
Not necessarily to its discredit, Ana is a top-heavy dichotomy of solo pieces, with several imposing neo-classical numbers followed by a weightless suite of 12-string musings. The classical guitar lot starts with the austere tunes “Reluctant Bride” and “Tale of Saverio” before turning perky with “Joyful Departure”, which slaloms down consonant slopes. The poignant “Green and Golden”, carried by Towner’s pianistic rolling style, is a delight, while “I Knew It Was You” features a kinetic solo over an interesting harmonic map. The centerpiece “Lez Douzilles” captures Towner’s lively, advanced improvisation at its best. It’s amazing how easily he moves from one rippling entanglement to the next. In the short etude “Veldt”, Towner thrums damped, loosened strings in a percussive manner.
Act II of the album includes seven 12-string sketches that Towner plays privately and hardly develops at all. These are mostly stranded ideas, like the twinkling harmonics of “Between the Clouds” and the nomadic phrases of “Child on the Porch” and “Slavic Mood”. The two parts of “Carib Crib” at least have a catchy vamp, as does the closing “Sage Brush Rider”. The choppy dissonance of “Toru” recalls Derek Bailey in places. It doesn’t add up to much, and none of the tracks are among the better examples of Towner’s work on 12-string. So Ana tilts heavily toward the classical guitar tracks up front, leaving mostly vapor in the second half.
More solo Towner. The chiming minor chords of “Solitary Woman” set a dark tone, followed by the noble title track, which indeed sounds like the anthem of some humble yet aspirant nation, soon to be overrun by socialist thugs. Other tunes like “Haunted” and “Simone” maintain the overcast aura, countered by the lithe eruptions of “The Lutemaker”. Scott LaFaro’s eternal “Gloria’s Step” is given excellent treatment, and the art of small gestures is explored in “Four Comets” (for nylon string) and “Three Comments” (for 12-string). “Very Late” may well be an answer to Bill Evans’ “Very Early”. A highlight of the disc is “Raffish”, a bright, busy tune, and “The Prowler”, tense with chromatic turns and a rhythmic chug, is almost as catchy. Closing the album is a quiet, decorated chorus of Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, which sounds like the blues as heard through the rainy windshield on the album’s cover. And so goes Anthem’s introspection without indulgence - it will please RT fans and a couple of tracks could make quite the impression on newcomers.