A new solo album from one of the great masters of the acoustic guitar, recorded in Oslo early last year. Ralph Towner has appeared in many contexts for ECM since 1972, but it is perhaps his outstanding solo recitals, 'Diary' (1973), 'Solo Concert' (1979), 'Ana' (1996), and now 'Anthem' which most clearly emphasise both his improvisational brilliance and his finely-wrought compositional sense.
The dictionary defines an anthem as a solemn song of praise; there are several on this disc. Most are written by Towner himself and played with the 'almost oriental sense of balance and dignity' that the New York Times long ago singled out as hallmarks of Ralph's work, but the repertoire here also includes Charles Mingus's solemn song of praise in memory of Lester Young, 'Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat' as well as 'Gloria's Step', written by the late Scott LaFaro (of Bill Evans's great bassists, the only one with whom Towner never played).
Amid the sculpted, strongly melodic songs, two sets of miniatures ' 'Four Comets' and 'Three Comments' ' for classical and 12-string guitars respectively, dazzle and flare. As ever, they resist easy categorisation, for jazz and a very personal approach to modern composition overlap in Towner's world.
In an interview with Mark Murshet the guitarist described himself as '100% improviser and composer: I work in both areas in a total way. I do completely composed pieces and I improvise completely improvised pieces. And I do pieces that are partially composed and partially improvised. Improvising is instant composition anyway, a kind of composition that you do on the fly. The difference is that with written composition you have time. You can write until you perfect it. With improvisation you take a skeletal system and work within it in real time. Often, improvised things won't have the real content of a thoroughly composed piece of music. You can improvise two voice lines and it can be very exciting. But if you have a chance to sit down and compose something of the same order, you're able to work carefully with the contrary motion, with the voice leading, and control the tension in the music even more'.
Towner's writing represents the sum of his adventures in an unorthodox biography that takes in classical composition studies (with an emphasis on serialism and Stravinsky), guitar tutelage under Karl Scheit, an intense immersion in Brazilian music, and a kind of pre-history as a pianist and as a trumpeter before he even took up the guitar (at the grand old age of 23). These experiences have left their mark upon his music, as has of course the work with ' for instance 'John Abercrombie, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson, Gary Burton, Weather Report, and Elvin Jones, and with Paul McCandless, Glenn Moore and the late Collin Walcott in the group Oregon. A still wider range of associates has taken in all the aesthetic positions between Freddie Hubbard and Tim Hardin, between Astrud Gilberto and John McLaughlin ' Ralph Towner has played with all of these.
'What I've assembled in my own musical world is literally that: an assembly of experience. You can hear the parts, you can hear the influences'. Of his unique 'jazz.' playing, which often maintains the illusion of multiple parts unfolding, he says,' I'll often play the bass part, the chords, the melody and a percussive 'cymbal' part all at the same time, distributed in a way that sounds like there are three or four people working on it.' It is at such moments that debts to the Bill Evans Trio are most evident. 'In a way I'm leaping from one role to another, keeping everything alive. It's like cooking four dishes on a stove. You're cooking one meal but you've got four separate things cooking at different temperatures and with different timings, so you're tending to each one. You run over and make sure you're not burning one thing while making sure something else isn't boiling over or cooking too fast. You have to tend to everything. It's a very good analogy because if you stay with one thing too long, the other things will, in musical terms, not burn up, but fade from existence. Basically, I'm touching on all these things in order to keep their existence in the listener's memory. Instead of it being a one man play, you're hearing multiple colours, qualities and characters in the music simultaneously, so you're drawn away from the fact that it's a guitar.' In brief, 'technique' in Towner's world is never empty display of virtuosity - he maintains a sense of drama and expectation in his music.
'Anthem' marks several anniversaries. Towner, born 1940 in Washington, turned 60 during the recording in Oslo's Rainbow Studios. The release of the disc ushers in the guitarist's 30th year as an ECM associate. It was 1971 when Manfred Eicher first heard the guitarist playing at The Space, a rebuilt church on New York's West Side, an encounter that led directly to the recording of the 'Trios/Solos' album. 'Anthem' also happens to be Towner's 20th album as a leader for the label (there are another three discs with the group Oregon, plus guest appearances with Keith Jarrett, Azimuth, Kenny Wheeler and Egberto Gismonti). A lot of round numbers to celebrate.
The press on Ralph Towner's guitar artistry:
'Ralph Towner is a guitar player's dream, one of the most brilliant lights in the fingerstyle universe' 'Guitar Player
'Towner has expanded the timbral vocabulary of the acoustic 12 string more than any guitarist I've heard, writing pieces with shimmering upper octave harmonics, extensive use of space , and dissonant open voiced chordings which produce a great sense of tension and power.'Glenn Hammett, The Tracking Angle
'The instrumental music on 'Ana' is transfixing in its beauty, mesmerizingly introspective, exquisitely serene and buoyantly fleet. But above all, whether Towner is being thoughtful or passionate, he consistently surprises...A highly recommended guitar delight'.Dan Oulette, Down Beat
'It's a slender slip of landscape where jazz and classical have successfully met. One figure who, over more than a quarter century, has made it work is guitarist Ralph Towner. His has been a distinct and organic process in which strains of his classical breeding and love of the jazz and the world's folk music have made a pact.'Josef Woodard, Jazz Times
'An almost oriental sense of balance and dignity.'Stephen Davis, New York Times
'Ralph Towner has single-handedly established the 12-string guitar as a major instrument for jazz improvisation. This is an absolutely remarkable achievement...He brings to the 12-string a hauntingly light touch, magically quick fingers and a gift for creating compositions that explore the instrument's melodic as well as rhythmic potentialities.'Neville Walker, Modern Recording and Music