In spite of the fact that Ralph Towner’s Time Line is on ECM, the first thing to be noted about the album is just how far removed it is from what passes for jazz to most people these days. And this is even more surprising when you consider it’s coming from someone whose past collaborations include work with such jazz luminaries as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Kenny Wheeler, and who contributed to I Sing the Body Electric, the epochal album by the jazz-fusion group to end them all, Weather Report.
A selection of solo performances for classical and twelve string acoustic guitars, recorded in the church of the Austrian mountain monastery of St. Gerold, this album doesn’t so much swing as sing. Recorded with ECM label boss and producer Manfred Eicher’s usual pristine sound and reveling in the warm, swelling resonances of the sacred space, this is an album capturing the living, breathing intimacies of one man’s singular muse and rigorous observance of superlative technique. The results are precise yet joyous, controlled yet surprising, rigid yet alive.
As the title suggests, Towner sees the album as a stage on a long, continuous journey: a chance to look back over his achievements and forward to his intended destination. Personal development and constant refinement of skill and beauty are things the guitarist takes very seriously and this probably explains why he’s moved so far from the jazz idiom within which he made his name. Sure, there are elements of improvisation involved here, but for the most part it’s a suite of tightly composed, almost modern-classical pieces that strive to conjure up particular moods or images.
“The Pendant” is the wistful evocation of a keepsake discovered in a drawer and unlocking a lifetime of memories; “Oleander Etude” is a fast, Mediterranean flash of flowers seen from the window of a speeding car; “The Hollows” is a strictly composed harmonic oddity conjuring a mysterious location; “If” is a dancing, carefree, happy melody like a sunlit afternoon; “The Lizards of Eraclea” is a scurrying, twisted, baroque melody caught out of the corner of the eye; and “Turning of the Leaves” is a sultry study of autumn in the Mediterranean.
To complement this self-penned repertoire, Towner throws in a couple of standards from the great American songbook: Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”—both of which were favorites of the late Bill Evans, an acknowledged influence on the guitarist. Here, and especially on Arlen’s lovely tune, Towner seems to relish the chance to cut loose a little and exercise his swing muscles in an irrepressibly jazzy reading that, nevertheless, still sits inside his personal and very clearly marked aesthetic.
Of even more interest to the jazz fan is the album’s centerpiece, “Five Glimpses”, which takes five brief fragments of improvised themes and sequences them as one linear event. Yet, rather than sounding free and expressive, these moments of spontaneity seem to fall flat and just a little limp. It’s as though, once the self-imposed confines of composition have been lifted, Towner is reluctant to really let go, preferring instead to react to the limits he has defined for himself.
Still, it is a beautifully crafted and stunningly intimate recording in which one can almost hear the machinations of another man’s mind committed to disc. The fact that Time Line will inevitably end up getting turned down way too low and talked over at dinner parties is, in the final analysis, neither here nor there.