"Ralph Towner is a guitar player's dream, one of the most brilliant lights in thefingerstyle universe."
- Guitar Player
Anais a solo guitar album by an acknowledged master of the instrument. Towner's compositionalintelligence, his sense of form, is ever evident in his improvising here while hiswriting retains the freshness of improvisation. The qualities of "balance and dignity" that The New York Times applauded in Towner's music more than 20 years ago have never deserted him. As a playerof the classical guitar Ralph Towner has few peers, irrespective of idiom, and onthe 12-string arguably none at all - he has developed his own language for it, asthe "Seven Pieces for Twelve Strings" which conclude this album amply demonstrate. "Ihave my own approach," he told Josef Woodard at Jazz Times. "You hear things and absorb them. I use unusual tunings: with 12 strings you cantune to a lot of different pitches beside the octaves and unisons. When you playwith a classical technique, then you can have these explosive unison chords thatsound bigger than life, rather than being rolled or strummed. Then you've got percussive soundsand again, more keyboard-like stuff." The "keyboard-like" component, the outcomeof Towner's applying of pianistic knowledge to the 12-string, can make the instrumentsound almost harpsichordal.
Although Towner has spoken in interview of translating the influence of Bill Evansthrough the medium of the acoustic guitar he has also been at pains to avoid gesturesconventionally associated with "jazz guitar". As he explained to journalist FredCrafts: "The thing I'm most interested in is to transcend the instrument in a way that makesit sound more like a small orchestra. There seems to me to be an orchestral way ofexpressing yourself on a small instrument by implying a lot. The classical guitaris really a magical instrument for this. I had felt the instrument had sounded foolishplaying bebop - it's too elegant to fall into that mold. My interest has been tocontinue to add to the guitar's vocabulary as an improvising instrument, neitherstrictly 'jazz' nor 'classical'." Both traditions inform his playing however.
The new solo album marks the guitarist's 25th anniversary as an ECM recording artist.Producer Manfred Eicher first heard Ralph Towner playing in 1971 at The Space, arebuilt church on New York's West Side, where the guitarist performed in a semi ad-hocensemble with Dave Holland, Mike and Randy Brecker and Barry Altschul. Eicher recognisedat once that he had found an important new voice.The following year, Trios/Soloswas recorded.
Ana, Towner's 17th ECM album under his own name (there are another three with Oregon, and guest appearances withKeith Jarrett, Azimuth, Kenny Wheeler and Egberto Gismonti) can perhaps said to bein the tradition of Trios/Solos, Diaryand Solo Concert. Although solo playing has always constituted a major part of Towner's touring activities,Ana is in fact his first solo guitar release since the 1979 live album. (His last "solo"album per se was the multi-instrumental, multi-tracked Blue Sun of 1982, on which Ralph also played piano, synthesizer, french horn, cornet and percussion).
"I have almost a life's work on one record company," Towner remarked to Jazz Times last year, "and all the records are available. When I look at that it reflects onManfred Eicher's approach to the artists. It's almost like a literary collection,as if the musicians are authors. You see their works all bound and lined up. In away, you could trace my whole development. It's been really beneficial. In the long run, I havea long run. It's not only the individual records but the fact that there is a consistency".
The relationship of course is symbiotic. It is the consistency of Towner's music,its sustaining of a very high level, that has encouraged its consistent documentationover a quarter-century.
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Ralph Towner was born into a musical family in Washington state in 1940, and grewup in Oregon. He played piano and trumpet throughout his childhood and studied classicalcomposition at the University of Oregon, graduating in 1963. He studied classicalguitar with renowned teacher Karl Scheit in Vienna for two years. In 1968 he moved toNew York City where his abilities as both guitarist and pianist gave him access toa very wide span of musics; he played with everyone from Freddie Hubbard to Tim Hardinvia Astrud Gilberto and John McLaughlin, contributing to genres ranging from Brazilianmusic to bebop and the new, then-unnamed stylistic syntheses that were in the air.In this "incredibly fertile period" he co-founded, in 1971, the group Oregon.
His work with ECM opened up a still-wider network of associations and brought Townerinto contact with many of the European players, perhaps most memorably in the Solstice quartet with Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Jon Christensen.
Towner's performing activities currently include solo playing, work with Oregon andwith two duos both of long-standing, one with John Abercrombie and one with GaryPeacock. A new album from the Towner/Peacock duo will be released later this year.