Ralph Towner’s name is synonymous with quiet acoustic guitar jazz. The 70-year-old first came to prominence as a member of Paul Winter’s Winter Consort and its offshoot, Oregon, in the early ’70s. Since then, Towner has recorded with a host of different jazz musicians, but his trademark has always been his calm, haunting way of picking and strumming in a manner that recalls the sounds of nature — from waterfalls and babbling brooks to the sounds of winds blowing around a canyon.
Towner’s latest effort features Sardinia-born trumpet and flugelhorn player Paolo Fresu. Fresu’s playing adds a hard edge to Towner’s soft sounds, especially on tunes like “Punta Giara” and “Two Miniatures”. His angular blowing forces Towner to get more abstract to fit in with the style of play, as Fresu goes from short staccato notes to long phrases without an in-between. Still, Towner never resorts to being harsh. He lets the guitar round and blur the edges. Hence the album’s title, Chiaroscuro, seems especially apt. The duo also perform a lovely take on Bill Evans and Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green”. Fresu keeps the volume down and the lines slightly repetitive in a manner that evokes a meditative mantra that gently changes shape, while Towner’s strings interweave between the melodies. The two play with such serene authority that the listener is almost afraid to take a breath until the almost 6-minute track is over.