Segovia's Mutant Brother:
RALPH TOWNER - Part 3
MORE GUITAR GAWDZ THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A LES PAUL AT
What's Guinness Got That We Ain't?- PART SIX
by Mark S. Tucker
Part 1 looked at the nascent Oregon as an ironically inadvertant 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 a firm regard in the music world (as we saw, Music of Another Present Era wasn't 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 composed 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, the band recognized the futility of trying to morph into a larger context and gave the idea up, producing one of their best LP's.
Part 2 surveyed the "descent" of Oregon from a chamber ensemble into a more blatantly fusionized aspect... though not fusion in the sense progrock or jazzwork have so far presented us with. With the group's debut on the ECM label, Towner began downplaying guitar more than had been the case at Vanguard, ending this survey's look at those years. The dials have now been reset, and we travel back to witness the fact that Ralph never really had any salad days, being well understood for his talent right from the very start. The years from 1968-1974 were previously covered and, as the time is still '74, we check in with The Lord Of The Keyboards, Keith Jarrett.
Jarrett had prepared a gatherum in his In the Light 2-LP release, a potpourri of various inclinations he'd felt that year. One of them was a work for guitar and orchestra, a scant 3:52 long and kinda like the treatment accorded Towner by Horacee Arnold and Clive Stevens, but... hey, this was Keith Dammit Jarrett, undisputed piano genius (and I do not render that pejoratively)! If anything rendered the plain comment that Towner might one day be a Segovia on wilder shores, a nod from Jarrett was as good as gold.
The opus, "Short Piece for Guitar and Strings," a blend of hoary classicalism (Towner) and incidentalistic flashes (the Sudfunk Symphony Orchestra String Section), saw Ralph turn in a flawless recital. Wryly, Jarrett had written the strangely colliding opus "to relieve [himself] from the seriousness [he] had fallen into." It became one of his favorite personal works of the time.
But there was another ECM cat who saw Towner in fuller terms, Gary Burton. He and Ralph got together for an LP mostly of the latter's music, one which incarnated in a surprising twist on Towner's norms. In Oregon contexts, the guitar was often the most delicate element, now it was the strongest, as few instruments can arrive at a more evanescent state than a vibraphone's bell tones. Nowhere does the guitar overpower Burton's instrument, but it is surprising to note, especially in Towner's chord strikes on "Drifting Petals," that he could take on a "power chord"-ish presence here and there. "Some Other Time" surveyed the Mancini/Alex North direction the pair occasionally assumed, a wistfully suburban venture bringing a more measured pace, but the result of the entire LP was pretty much what was anticipated and went over well.
1975 hit in full stride. Some say the Summer of Love occurred only during the middle of 1967, but that's erroneous. Whether those "lucky" enough to have inhabited the Haight then like it or not, the sobriquet actually became a nametag for the decade of the mid-'60's to mid-'70's, before the inevitable decline hit with the 80s surging into view. It was a decade of exploration, and few were more experimental than the leonine Larry Coryell. In 1974, he'd grabbed John McLaughlin and created the Spaces LP, a mind-blowing fusion extravaganza co-illuminated by Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous, and Billy Cobham. It was to be only the first of a triad. The second pulled in three-quarters of Oregon, setting Towner down beside another of the guitar's most able practitioners.
Uber-speed was never Ralph's intent at any point, neither here nor elsewhere, thus he was content to primarily play rhythm for Coryell. In the first cut, "Improvisation on Robert de Visee's Menuet II," this is most evident, but it's no sooner than the sophomore groove that Ralph shows his mettle: while Coryell jams and improvs his brains out, Towner aces him, background and foreground, in pure finesse. Coryell can never be said to be inept, but this song illustrates where larger hearts can take the day. The cut's a daunting exercise, no matter how it's sliced.
In the end, the Oregonians were, on this slab, little more than hired guns decorating Coryell's dais, but Restful Mind is a great LP not much remembered but more than worth the listen. On the last of the triad, Planet End (released later that same year), he'd reinstate the Spaces gang and be fighting for his life, McLaughlin once again dogging his heels, not to mention the passion of Vitous' bowed bass.
Oregon released their In Concert elsewhere and ECM showcased Towner's solo Solstice, which may well be his greatest work. Flanked by giants - Eberhard Weber on bass, Jan Garbarek on reeds and winds, and the inimitable Jon Christensen on drums - he vaulted to heights rarely achieved, save perhaps in Weber's own riveting Colours of Chloe. The LP is not only one of the moodiest ever published by ECM, but by anyone. Surreal, threnodic to a plateau, spooky, and extremely provoking in letheanly Poe-esque fashion, Garbarek turns in one of his greatest career performances, suffused with a tone at once funereal and pensively energetic.
It's often forgotten that we feel as much and as strongly in the deserts of abstraction as in the oceans of the familiar. The former was squarely the desmesnes of Solstice, especially "Oceanus," with its infinite spaces and nearly cosmic glaciality, an eternity of twilights and deep autumnal starfields. Via cello and bowed bass, Weber drifted nightclouds atop the laconically wailing trio beneath him. Towner's 12-string emitted a riffling meadow of wild grasses and sloughing zephyrs, host to Garbarek's forlorn lines, Christensen as always engaged in his maddeningly perfect percussions, drawing the pulse of the earth, it's colliding atoms, below the tableau.
"Visitation" yanked the heart of the entire song-collective out, an eerie Edvard Munchian gaggle of wheatfield spirits caught bewildered between human and spirit worlds, rising from the cooling earth to vaporize in the skies. "Drifting Petals" mellowed the scene in contemplatively slow drifts, Ralph starting a pianistic melody line composed of icicles before Weber dominated in Mark Egan-esque fretless lament, now bedded with a 12-string being finger-plucked into rich blanketing before closing the theme out. "Nimbus" caught Towner chasing his own mobius in complex multi-rhythm, building and reforming the hook, stretching the guitar's sound to unnaturally broad contours, as defiant to tradition as any Kottke singularity. The remainder of the LP followed on the established pattern, a watercolor pastel of Fall sneaking up on Summer, reminding it of its own mortality.
As if that weren't sufficient, Garbarek's 1976 Dis jumped off a crumbling cliff of misty inner reflections and worldly repine, its fundament a collection of recordings Eric Kongshaugg had made of an aeolian harp placed where the wind never ceases: southern Norway's section of the North Sea. Other than a one-cut appearance of brass from Den Norske Messingseksett, the instrumentation was solely of Garbarek's and Towner's devising. The opener, "Vandrere," tells all: the saxist, never a bringer of glad tidings, is resplendent in mimimalist abstraction with Towner even less garrulous, both playing from the far reaches of semi-soporific emotional reactionism. Ralph perpetually follows behind Garbarek but in such a way as to create a perfect blend of accompaniment and lead work, picking, strumming, brushing, then going silent to emphasize the sax.
Oregon released Together, but a re-meeting with John Abercrombie in ECM's Sargasso Sea (1976) heralded an unexpectedly important LP for guitar music. As far as can be discerned, Ralph Towner has never played electric guitar on a recording. Abercrombie has, and abundantly, but in an unorthodox fashion melding jazz traditionalism into fusion in a way no other quite has - not Steve Khan, not Larry Coryell, not even John McLaughlin. The two met for a set of duets emerging as the best such pairing ever committed to documentation, gathering plaudits far and wide while mesmerizing connoisseurs. Each player took and relinquished the foreground effortlessly, sometimes unnoticeably, so smoothly did phrasing, extrapolation, and style intertwine. The meeting couldn't have been more providential, as Abercrombie's baroquely psychedelic manner, which had emerged like a meteor in the 1973 group Friends (and good damn luck trying to find that hideously killer but exceedingly rare LP), was oft a mirror image of Towner's idiosyncratic extension of classicalist basings fused to modernity. Abercrombie would later release a solo venture loosely extended from this meeting, the shining Characters slab ('78), but the duet here presented a definite demarcation point after which the conflagrational style he'd intially embraced cooled down to pure heart and soul generously larded with intelligence.
1977 saw a vinyl gig with David Friesen and LP's from the Winter Consort and Oregon but more importantly returned to the Solstice base, this time with Solstice: Sound and Shadows. The quartet was the same but Ralph had carried something away from the meeting with Abercrombie, a fuller sense of refinement, shown in the very first cut, where his chords are nearly Ravelian in simplicity and impact, laced with Garbarek's sax and Towner's own lead work, seemingly pulled directly from Sargasso. Weber was following suit with synthersizery cello lines and plaintive bass leads. On the other hand, the lengthy "Balance Beam" was a laidback jam, with jittery chords and punctuated saxbursts, schizophrenic bass lines beneath and atop, Christensen as ever on his indescribable backgrounds, whispering, emphasizing, beckoning.
Batik came out in 1978 - not to mention two Oregon releases alongside appearances on LP's by Egberto Gismonti, Terry Plumeri, and Kenny Wheeler - commencing in an Oregon plum, "Water Wheel," with Towner at his most assertive. Though never one to intrude on sessioneers, he plays strongly, with a supra-confidence heretofore unheard, a matter of small degrees important to a master musician. Even the most delicate passages of the title cut possess a strength never before shown - again, a small degree but crucial. Something in that summit with Abercrombie had caused a shift and Batik reflected it.
1979's Old Friends, New Friends re-proved the proposition. The first cut, "New Moon," was one of his most muscular pieces to date, pulling in the redoubtable Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Towner himself playing a french horn to the side. Spanish in essence, it blended Oregon with his solo materials, the ever-present 12-string buttressing the song in a constant flow of complex picked patterns, rising and falling. "Celeste" proved to be drop-dead 100% trad jazz, a shocker. Yes, the gig with Abercrombie had knocked something loose in Towner, but it wasn't that he was heading in another direction but merely augmenting his palette, as the ECM Solo Concert (1980) demonstrated.
Solo was just that: only Ralph and only guitar. It proved to re-nail his justly earned fame to the wall, being a quietly pyrotechnic display of viruosity. Having seen him solo at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, I can testify to the acumen and élan. Merely watching his hands move over the fretboard is poetry in the flesh, mesmerizing. His astounding facility is otherwordly, the music becoming almost secondary. At times Jarrett-esque, even briefly rockish (!!!), Towner as much improvs as quotes chestnuts while playing in a manner that at times sounds like three players in harmony.
Inexplicably, though, this peak saw an immediate two year decline in output. 1980 brought no solo materials, just two LP's from Oregon and a sit-in with Azimuth (the ECM group, not Bertrami's Azymuth). 1981 was worse, with not even a new Oregon release, only a best of. 1982 bounced back a bit with appearances on Joseph Loduca's Cornucopia and Simon and Bard's Tear It Up, but, far more importantly, a return engagement of the duet with Abercrombie on Five Years Later. This LP was, if anything, even better than the initial set, maturer, more refined. Both players dance through their ballet with finesse and passion, but ever restrained even in the most fiery moments. Still as wide and airy as The Great Plains, the venture was nonetheless a bit more structured, more urbane.
And it was at this juncture (1983, actually) that I caught Towner for the last time, at a local restaurant dive, Hop Singh's in Venice Beach. The Wayne Johnson (guitarist, Manhattan Transfer) Trio opened for them, supporting a new LP, Grasshopper, a marvelous piece of fusion, jazz, and improv. The Trio was dynamite, hot as hell, everything a guitar lover could ask for, though the group, despite four strong LP's, was doomed to failure. Fortunately, they were playing for an audience that was 235% receptive, hanging on every note, commemorating their set through thunderous applause and bravos. Then came Towner & Abercrombie.
I've only a few times in my life seen musicians able to completely ensorcel an audience with just acoustic guitar: Jan Akkerman with an oud during a Focus concert, David Bowie in the middle of a set in his Spiders tour, and Towner & Abercrombie. While they played, breaths were held, talking ceased, and nary a pin could be heard to drop. Eyes were either riveted on the interplay or shut and dreaming. Hearing such lofty music on vinyl is one thing, seeing it is another. Both were alert to cues during improv sections, following each other like mutual conductors through script and as telepathic as any Martians from an X-Files segment, each and every moment of their set. The audience waxed ever more delirious. There'd be precious few times we'd ever witness such creativity.
'83 also saw Ralph's Blue Sun (ECM), a by-himself release with Towner playing all instruments. Cook & Morton, in their superb Penguin Guide to Jazz, call it his "least impressive" collection, but that's mostly because it lies well afield of past efforts, a natural evolution admittedly a good deal more New Agey, and even progrocky, than anything he'd ever done. Segments strongly recall The Long Hello's first LP (and readers will have to acclimate to my constant reference of that release, as it's unknown but epochal) and the most intelligent of the New Age movement, a genre which is largely a crock of shit otherwise. One must suspect, though, that it was the cut "C.T. Kangaroo" that rightly put the authors off, as it's use of a DX-7-y patch (through a Prophet 5!) is shuddery, the single most ill-chosen move in Towner's entire career, not much helped by a piano coming in late to try to save it. Most interesting though was the revelation that Ralph played not only classical guitar, 12-string, piano, synth, and french horn, as we'd seen previously, but also cornet and percussion.
1984 saw only the issuance of a "best of," Works (ECM), a bizarrely selected gatherum (editor unknown) not very effective in conveying Towner's strengths; in other words: disposable. 1985 saw only Oregon releasing its Crossing, and 1986 featured one new venture, Towner meeting with Gary Burton again for Slide Show. Except for the Davis/Evans "Blue in Green," all pieces in this last disc were written by Ralph, with him manning guitars only, proving to be another tour de force from the opening seconds until the close. His picking is as clean, patterned, and evocative as ever, with Burton chasing him through the rounds and vice versa. "Maelstrom" nicely nails a sobriquet to the slab - though, of course, there's never thunder from either component; such would be antithetical.
The Slide Show album is beautiful, intricate, filligreed, and a demonstration of what happens when a label wisely hands musicians their own reins. "Around the Bend" is a particularly speedy reading and the take on "Blue and Green" unusually laid back. Cook & Morton once again hang an albatross around Ralph's, and Gary's, neck but the disc is a good one... and ironically Ralph's last high point. What the master critics were correctly seeing was a slow degredation of long-established metiér in his full compositional prowess. 1987 came around and Oregon issued their last ECM gig, Ecotopia, therefter 86'ed. The New Age Factor had gotten too prevalent in the group's repertoire for producer Manfred Eicher, a gent with perhaps the most consummate taste in music on panet Earth, and the old Vanguard lads were getting a bit more independent, so they showed themselves the door, free to vend wares elsewhere, which they did in 1988, going over to the Intuition label, where, among a few other print gigs, they'd remain.
Towner appeared on Trilok Gurtu's CMP disc Usfret (Gurtu was the new percussionist in Oregon, following the tragic death of Walcott in a truck accident as the ensemble traveled in the rain in Germany from one gig to another). Oregon switched to the Portrait imprint, home to its 45th Parallel, and Ralph issued City of Eyes on ECM, an LP that was a highly mixed bag, jazzier than usual but also surprisingly filmic. Ralph opted chiefly for the guitar and McCandless and Markus Stockhausen couldn't help but dominate several cuts in tremendously articulate lines, Jerry Granelli supplying intriguingly randomic percussion.
OH THAT SLIPPERY SLOPE
1990 and 1991 saw only sit-in dates for the guitarist. 1992 brought a solo, in Italian release only, Un Altra Vita; a second Intuition disc from Oregon; a sit-in with Howard Schanzer; and the ECM "Open Letter," this last clearly a step down from history. With only Peter Erskine on percussion behind him, Ralph sticks to guitars and synth for a very moody collection mostly of his own songs, but there's an absent élan despite the laudable playing. One might even reverse the oft-quoted Amadeus line, opining that there were not enough notes. He'd previously well established a cloudily complex style atop which leads were placed, but now, all that remained were the leads. This was Towner's jazziest LP. People were not used to that.
1993 arrived with four session albums, two of which would be expected (Arild Anderson's If You Look Far Enough and Pino Daniele's Che Dio Ti Benedica), the second pair being highly unusual: 1) Ralph sitting in on a guitar players' tribute to the Beatles, Come Together, Vol. 1, and 2) Oregon contributing a cut to the John Cage trib Chance Operation, their slice an improv - "Choice/Chance," dedicated to Cage's spirit.
1994. Gary Peacock was teaming with Ralph again (he'd been on City of Eyes) for the duet Oracle, a mostly meditative collab primarily of Peacock songs centering on his bass playing but providing another gig in which the two traded off lead and rhythm chores ceaselessly, the two modes sometimes melting.
Towner's work is well stated but not quite so vigorous or glowing as once it had been. His decline (as painful as it is to call it that amidst work that could still shame most musicians in any genre) was becoming obvious, would be gradual though paved with many gems. Though Oregon issued two CDs in '95, it wasn't until 1996 that Towner rewarded ears with another solo album Lost & Found, where he stuck to guitar and turned in a breathtaking set of recitals... that still fell short of earlier zeniths. Part of the problem was a return to a consideration of classicalist modes, a move tricky even at the best of times (as Parkening, Williams, and others have demonstrated abundantly). Too often, a guitarist will lose his identity in the manners and mode of the style, becoming indistinguishable from the catalogue. Such was somewhat the case here.
It then occurred complementarily that Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford should choose to cut a CD with Ralph and Eddie Gomez. Having tired of progrock to an extent, Bruford returned to an early love (jazz) with excellent results in the Earthworks and later Bill Bruford ensembles (the early ones, titled simply 'Bruford,' were prog fusion). 1996's If Summer Had Its Ghosts was, no mistake, jazz, and far more so than Ralph had ever participated in. The session didn't fully gel despite good performances, remaining curiously pedestrian, save most glaringly for the amazingly propulsive "Splendour Among Shadows." The comps were almost all Bruford's but that wasn't the source of the problem - his other recent work had bristled with electricity and verve. No, there was just a certain yeomanlike quality everywhere in the disc. No inspiration was forthcoming, the guys just weren't sparking off each other, and Ralph turned out a set that might've been mailed in.
From that point on, the guitar wizard just kinda froze out, wavering between material that smacked highly of past excellences but was cut with present mundanities. Oregon continued to be similar, never returning to ECM, their sound not what it once had been, and Ralph put out a few more solo releases to the side of a number of sit-ins, but the years from 2003 on saw a decline in output all around.
It would be a huge mistake to discount even the comparatively mildest releases of the master player because the relativities one must critically allude to could only occur within his own sphere. That is, there was no real predecessor to Ralph Towner and none have emerged up to this point. It's highly doubtful we'll be seeing one any time soon. His work stands on its own and whatever may be said to have eclipsed and waned did so purely in comparison only to his own unbelievable excellences. When compared to others... well... even Towner's most "mediocre" work is still on par with Egberto Gismonti, Abercombie, McLaughlin, or any of the many sanctified stringfingered fret-demons one might care to name. In his most pedestrian moments, Ralph still exudes pure quality and sincerity, and any critic who could compose a list of the top 50 guitarists of the 20th century and not list Towner on it would have to be accounted a fool.
To re-paraphrase Abercrombie from my interview with him years ago: there should be a special place reserved in the hall of American Arts for Ralph Towner's music.
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