Perfect Sound Forever

What's Guinness Got That We Ain't? PART SIX:

Photo by Joe Smith

Segovia's Mutant Brother:
Ralph Towner - Part 2
by Mark S. Tucker
(October 2007)


Part 1 looked at the nascent Oregon as an ironically inadvertent subversion within the Paul Winter Consort, further paradoxical in its production of the best work Winter's ensemble would ever see. Topping the paradox, the sub-group wouldn't release its first LP until many years after the attainment of firm regard in the music world (as we saw, Music of Another Present Era wasn't really Oregon's true first set of recordings). Unparalleled in its creativity, the band quickly grew in critical and consumer eyes and ears, first nailing down a quartet signature sound that later attempted to induct new members... elegantly failing every time. Oregon was ever and only best as a foursome, a chamber jazz effort embodied by Colin Walcott, Paul McCandless, Glen Moore, and Ralph Towner... most especially Towner.

As the decade was closing down, even they recognized the futility of trying to morph into a larger context and gave the idea up, producing one of their best LP's.


Elektra produced Roots in the Sky (1979), perhaps the quintessential LP for proving that the near-entirety of the later side-genre Oregon fundamentally helped create - New Age - was little more than the hideously indulgent, sterile, masturbatory sham it too often and too damn profitably was. Not since their early days had the group cleaved their unique vision so perfectly. The cohesivity of the LP was a statement of purity, the music a matter of refinement and depth incarnate. "June Bug" opened the disc and was exactly what it purported to be: a crazily beautiful jitter-beetle pattern of insects flitting about a balmy summer's eve. Towner opened with a frantically juggled set of repeating chords, half-strummed, half-plucked, while McCandless blew a complex melody above, equally frenetic but oh-so-refined. Walcott percussively took the part of a chittering background while Moore's bass remained the sole foundation. The tension between the languid tone, only Moore painting it, and the strange dance of miniature lifeforms tracing weird lines against the fading sun was as delicate as a Piranesi etching.

"Vessel" retained the atmospherics, now metronomically painted by Walcott, with Moore recessing even further to only gesture at temperature and tone while Towner took up the piano for an improv blending Evans with Corea. McCandless saxily sassified alongside them in collegially witty accompaniment. The loss and recovery of the theme throughout the song is a masterpiece of elongation and airy bridges, another benchmark of pristine explication in their chamber wont.

Of crucial importance was Walcott's wide array of African and Indian instruments, mainly percussive, which provided a blend of the staccato and the organic in a way he'd never previously put forth quite so well, "Sierra Leone" being his solo centerpiece here. "Ogden Road" sped back to Consort days while marrying firm classical structures into Jarrett-ish dimensions. The tumbling time changes though were ultimately the key to the piece, imbuing it with the best jazz traditions. Over it all reigned what a UCLA professor once remarked upon, shown in the following sidebar:

Thanks to a clerk at a Hermosa Beach record shop (Platterpuss), a gent hugely influential in helping form my musical tastes in the '70's, I'd been turned on to Oregon and ECM. I fell deliriously in love with the label, to this day regarding it as the top producer of music on the planet, bar none, save only Deutsche Gramaphone perhaps. One day, walking into the store, as I was asking what had come in, the guy informed me that Oregon was appearing with the Gary Burton Quartet at Royce Hall. I walked straight back out, heading for the local ticket office.

The day for the concert came. I drove up to Yuppie Central (Westwood, CA), found my seat, and the older cat sitting next to me, a UCLA resident professor leaned over, asking if I mightn't know who these "Oregon guys" were. I replied that they were the main reason I was there, explaining how they operated. He listened intently, uttering a "Hmmmm" as Towner and crew, the openers, walked on. The group launched into its work with barely a word of introduction and, three songs later, the prof leaned back over as if stricken. "My God," he whispered, "this is the most formidable ensemble of overachievers I've ever seen in my life!"


It probably should be noted that the evening was singular in several respects. First, Oregon was indeed superlative, beyond all reasonable expectations; second, Burton had a newbie guitarist no one had ever heard of: Pat Metheny; third, Metheny was doubling with Mick Goodrick; and fourth, Towner came out at the close of the Burton set to duet with Gary, presenting material from their ECM Matchbook LP. Rarely have I been witness to a more gripping presentation of art - not when Fripp was at his prime, not when Glass blew through SoCal, not when Mike Oldfield presented an incredibly inspirational concert at the Santa Monica Civic, not even when I later caught Towner and Abercrombie in duet stylings at Hop Singh's in Venice Beach with the Wayne Johnston Trio opening for them... which we'll address later.

So, Roots in the Sky wended its Byzantine way through two slabsides, showcasing the lads in a form they'd never again attain collectively, though Towner would equal the pinnacle in his solo LP's, entertained separately momentarily. The release sold well enough to elicit a two-LP Oregon in Performance a year later, 1980. As the ensemble was improvisation-based, a live format was the ideal setting for the audient, the manner in which he or she might see the process best, as had been demonstrated in In Concert (1975). None of the album's four sides carried more than three songs, unfolding long interplays of creativity hugely satisfying. Towner, in the opening "Buzzbox," kept to elliptical chords on guitar before switching to piano. Every member slowly melted into him pointillistically, creating a cicada-ish tableau not dissimilar to Roots' earlier "June Bug." Especially important was the unorthodox way each approached playing and compositional aspects in their parts, more with the profundity of a classicalist "gone bad," hopping over the fence to fusion, the jazz grotto wherein hid the mutant minds of the era. "Along the Way" saw the fretsmaster returning to the instrument for which he remains most famed, the classical axe, in an excursion that would've pleased Yepes, with bassist Moore backing him Eberhard Weber fashion.

Ralph returned to the piano in this LP a trifle too frequently for the taste of some; thus, the release wasn't quite so stratospheric as Roots, nor could it carry soundboard "gimmickry" boosting timbral flavors to studio heights: live recordings sound phony in such glamorization. It was, though, a superbly illustrated venue for the guitarist's extemporaneous prowess. The penultimate cut was titled as a "Free Piece" and about as oblique as the group got, leading into a sparkling rendition of "Icarus" with Towner resplendent on the 12-string, his secondary repute.

It's probably indicative of something, God only knows what, that In Performance spelled the final Elektra release. The group would wait three years before re-emerging on ECM Records. Very telling of unexpected shifts in that re-birth was the new look to that intial LP. Sporting an atrocious cover, a singularly un-ECM-ish Moshe Brakha-esque exercise in bad taste - with its stiff photography and primary colors processed with dust and grit - it was obvious the group was now eschewing previous Enlightenment graphics for "that modern tang." Accompanying it was Towner's new predilection for synthesizers, which proved to be... rather marvelous actually. The first cut, "The Rapids," trotted out the ensemble in about as full a sound as they'd ever enjoyed - the Prophet 5 Ralph used was famed for its orchestral qualities, though he'd turn to its ghostlier aspects as well. Only four of the eight songs saw guitar at all. Something was happening.

Oregon's sound was more melodic and ambient than it had ever been. On the same label, John Surman had become captivated by the synthesizer's inexhaustible colorative possibilities and so now too was Ralph Towner. Those familiar with his catalogue understood this to be the revivification of a sound he'd created during his mid-'70's Solstice solo period wherein desolate airs, haunts, exalted heavens, and other spiritually enigmatic devices proliferated. ECM had been single-handedly responsible for the most dramatic advancement of the musical arts (along with the top-tier progressive rock and fusion artists, that is) in modern times and Oregon, Towner especially, was not going to take lightly any chance to likewise evolve.

Thus, the ECM years draw the curtain on our concerns with Oregon and its inclusion of Ralph Towner as master guitar player. The reader's invited to listen to the later Oregon catalogue just on merit of its brilliance, an extraordinary continuation of several styles (free jazz, fusion, chamber, classicalism, etc.) blent with a finesse that has never been equaled, but we now travel back in time to appraise some of the genius guitar player's solo, duet, and guest work.


1968 saw Towner's debut in print, on Duke Pearson's I Don't Care Who Knows It, landing on nothing less than the prestigious Blue Note label, about as grand an entrance as a young unknown could hope for. Two years later, in 1970, Paul Winter saw the guitarist's acumen, drafting him into his Consort band, producing the Road LP. The year following, Ralph appeared as a session player on the unknown Cyrus Faryar's Cyrus as well as the very-well-known Tim Hardin's Bird on a Wire. Every time Ralph stepped into pubic view, it was in notable fashion, even when not under the mantle of burgeoning celebrity.

Still, 1972 was to be a watershed. Not only did the Consort trot out Icarus, but Oregon produced its first release, Music of Another Present Era, and Weather Report asked Towner to sit in for a cut on the landmark I Sing the Body Electric. The first part of the song selected for him, Wayne Shorter's "The Moors," was 100% Towner in an intro solo, the cut itself coming off like an even more tribal Oregon.

From there, Towner's name was accorded high-level cult status. In 1973, fusionist Horacee Arnold followed Weather Report's lead, featuring the guitarist on Tribe, an unknown classic blending him into a stellar cast: Joe Farrell, Dave Friedman, George Mraz, Ralph MacDonald, and a cat named Billy Harper on tenor. Ralph nabbed the LP's opening moments with his 12-string, then recessed to rhythm for the remainder of the first cut, a couple of times paralleling others' leadwork.

There's a problem here, though, one that occurred with dismaying frequency back in the day: the use of a musician to capture segments of the audience which mightn't otherwise pay attention. Towner appears only on the opening cut. The rest of the LP is excellent, worthy of a commemoration it presently doesn't receive and never has, but the mercenary tactic of garnering sales through the use of a rising star is... well, both satisfying and dismaying.

That same year, folkie Michael Johnson enjoyed Towner's work on the deservedly obscure There is a Breeze, and Oregon released Distant Hills, but ECM also grabbed the axehandler, featuring him not only in a solo debut, Diary but a "duet LP" with Glenn Moore as well, Trios/Solos. In reality, the disc was Oregon itself, fractionated into two- and three-man ensembles, though the lion's share went to the bassist and guitarist, presenting a string lover's delight. In essence, every cut was more an outtake improv from Oregon sessions than anything else. That, however, was exactly what the mob wanted, and that was exactly what we, thank all the stars in heaven, got. The initial groove displayed Towner in nimble-fingered glory, hands roving over a 12-string with mad abandon and startling precision. Compositionally, the LP was Towner's writing alone, or done with chums, in every song but two.

When he switched to classical guitar for the one-man "Winter Light," a tune that would become the titular banner for next year's Oregon release, the slower song was just as satisfying in a Hoagy Carmichael manner, giving way to the moody "Noctuary" with McCandless and Moore. Alternating between mistily engaging threnodies and vivacious complexities has ever been Towner's trademark and "1 X 12" became Ralph's alone, his 12-string blending classicalists, Kottke, and the maestro himself in his own unique sound, tapestries floating in mid-air.

Diary was Towner and nothing but Towner, oft multisynched, indulging in new songs and old (Oregon), blending guitars, pianos, and gongs. Of all he'd executed so far, this contained the most writerly atmosphere. Much of it was not of-the-moment improv but highly considered material, the guitar-playing as pristine and inventive as ever, updating aged and proven techniques, exploring new applications, elongating or truncating in order to test possibilities. "Images Unseen" was, as far as can be discerned, the first song anywhere employing just guitar and gongs, a staccato piece hanging on interleavings of the delicate and the brash, angularity in its most distinctive aspect, leading into a piano and 12-string reading of "Icarus," the sparest rendition the song would ever receive, yet one paradoxically filled to the brim with zest, energy.

"Mon Enfant" is a cousin to Jan Akkerman's lute work in his solo releases, chasey with Renaissance structures, while "Erg" found Towner using the guitar body as percussion with a number of plectrum and strum "tricks" exoticizing a cut characterized by long complex lead lines. Any way one cared to look at it, 1973 was the year Ralph Towner came fully into his own.

1974 saw him asked back for Arnold's sophomore release, Tales of the Exonerated Flea, again for only a single cut but in a slab that also sported Jan Hammer and Rick Laird (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Dave Friedman once more, Sonny Fortune, and several others... including John Abercrombie. The alliance with Abercrombie would bear later fruit, but this outing is as much worth checking out as Arnold's first - in fact, more so, due to Hammer's unbelievable playing as well. Nothing from Ralph was outstanding in Tribe - in fact, Abercrombie and Hammer were the most commanding presences - except perhaps for the odd fact that Arnold chose Towner and Hammer for the only two rear liner photos, with Ralph decked out in a very uncharacteristic Claptony beard and mustache.

Clive Stevens decided Arnold's practice was a sound one and similarly grabbed Towner for the Atmospheres fusion LP's he put out in 74: Atmospheres and Voyage to Uranus, a twosome combusting Stevens' sax chops and the presence once again of John Abercrombie as he went thorugh his most psychedelic period. Like Arnold, Stevens barely used Towner in Voyage. Atmospheres was another story, though.

There, Ralph was led in for his keyboard playing, getting a true workout, quite an unexpected one at that. Ralph was never a rocker nor a true jazzer, and fusion requires a strong basing in both. Acquitting himself well, it would nonetheless be the last time such an inapposite form would be ventured by him. Oregon put out Winter Light and Ralph traveled over to Keith Jarrett's side of the ECM house, to sit in on In The Light.

Part 3 will pick up from there and carry to the conclusion of the Towner coverage.
No one else will receive as much print in this series on guitarists.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER