Ralph Towner is a virtuoso guitar player, one of the very few who manages to meld together skillfully the disparate worlds of jazz and classical music. Over the years he has given us many great musical gifts, both improvised and composed, solo and in tandem with others. Perhaps you remember his work with Gary Burton or Jack DeJohnette or Eberhard Weber or Jan Garbarek, or his fine musicianship as an integral part of the group Oregon. At the very least, you’re likely familiar with “Icarus”, the signature tune for Paul Winter Consort, a Towner composition. His most recent release Anthem is a very special return to basics for Towner, marking (at the time) his 60th year alive and his 30th year in music, as well as his 20th release on ECM. I’m pleased to tell you that this lovely solo recording is far from spare. It plays like a soundtrack to your own imagination, and it might be Towner’s best effort in some time.
Listening to these beautiful songs takes you to far away places, the clean sounds and phrasings only outdone by the emotional drama and reach of the songs themselves. Towner has the ability to take you beyond what one might view as the limitations of the acoustic 6- or 12-string guitar into a land of sensitive musical storytelling. His magic is in captivating the listener with trills and impressive note runs that command attention.
Perhaps Towner’s experience on other instruments—piano, French horn and trumpet—allows him to better convey the range of emotions he manages to get out of mere guitar. His nuances and shadings, the colors in his musical palette afford Towner the ability to turn solo guitar into something often as expressive as a whole orchestra. His distinctive compositions build from simple notes into complex multi-layered whorls; he dresses up simple melodies with such impressive structural flair that the end results are more art than music.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ECM label and its roster of artists, allow me this momentary digression. My background is folk/pop and rock guitar. Years ago, a friend of mine who is a classical pianist turned me on to ECM. He didn’t know much about popular music; I didn’t know much about classical music. However, with the sound of ECM jazz we’d found a common musical meeting ground.
The label, brainchild of Manfred Eicher, prides itself on a certain uniformity of sound, ensured by having had only two engineers in all of its years and numerous releases. ECM is about quality, paying incredible attention to musical detail and sound, though always at low production costs. The usual deal is that the artist comes in decisive and ready before entering the studio, so that not a lot of time is spent in the actual recording. The standard ECM record is achieved with a mere two days’ recording and one day’s mixing.
Towner prepared extensively for this recording, considering how Anthem turned out. Having stockpiled a batch of intricate songs for about a year prior to recording, Towner is pleased with how well he was playing on this. He says “It has no overdubs; it’s like a live concert”. The CD features mostly original Towner compositions, along with a song by Scott La Faro called “Gloria’s Step” and a short version of the Charles Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. A much longer version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” can be found on Towner’s Matchbook, done in collaboration with Gary Burton back in 1974. That older version was Mingus’ favorite, according to what Mingus told Burton. In recent years, Towner has taken to performing it solo on a 12-string in his live performances, and decided to keep it simple here as an homage to Mingus. The track, at a mere 1:54, is a sensitive once-through of this complex melody, and yet in Towner’s hands it might well be the definitive guitar version.
The opening “Solitary Woman” conjures drama from a simple melody that repeats and spins dazzling loops around itself. Towner weaves a complex musical tapestry through this modest melodic thread, one that rivets your attention with the power of its storytelling every second of the way. The title track, “Anthem”, builds slowly, but perhaps is Towner’s crowning achievement here, cutting a wide swath of musical storytelling, drawing from Russian to Renaissance and beyond with clean graceful classical guitar lines.
Tracks like “The Lutemaker”, “Raffish” and “The Haunted” put more of Towner’s technical finesse on display, while a song like “Gloria’s Step” shows that Towner can hold his own with the best of today’s more traditional jazz guitarists.
On Anthem, Towner’s compositions are aesthetic wonders, capable of delivering emotional moods in a fluid instant. The beauty of these songs and the grace with which they are performed makes this one of the best in a long career for Towner. I urge you to put on the headphones and lose yourself in this wonderful collection and discover (or rediscover) the magic of Towner’s solo guitar mastery.
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