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An Evening with Ralph Towner

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Of course, music is a frequent victim of such oft brutal and dismissive exercises and, as a result, the artist is both banished and liberated into the welcoming aural universe of the relative free-thinker.
Ralph Towner
An Die Musik
Baltimore, MD
June 23, 2006

There is often a predisposition, for whatever reason, to categorize and compartmentalize both the manner of existence and the means of expression. Our food, friends, neighborhoods, automobiles and clothes are all neatly isolated and segregated into predisposed sections meant to conform to our already limited experiences and expectations. Of course, music is a frequent victim of such oft brutal and dismissive exercises and, as a result, the artist is both banished and liberated into the welcoming aural universe of the relative free-thinker. Music which is perhaps neither classical nor jazz, cannot be expected to appeal to either group within that already limited general audience.

As a young teenager taking oboe lessons, I was often searching for the means in which to connect my instrument, which is deeply, and perhaps almost exclusively, rooted within the classical music arena, to a more immediately communicative genre. I vividly recall Kate St. John's haunting oboe, lending a mystical melancholy to the Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town . Occasionally, I would encounter a number of jazz oboe performances: Yusef Lateef mixing his Eastern beliefs within the jazz tradition; Fumiaki Miyamoto performing Brubeck's compositions. In an effort to ease my search, my instructor gave me a number of cassettes, each filled with the music of Oregon; another world has been opened. The group emerged from the Paul Winter Consort in 1969 and its four members and over sixty instruments could neither be codified nor categorized. Paul McCandless' oboe was, in many ways, exactly what I had been seeking; he was clearly classically trained, but could not be contained from a naturally expressive tone and his compositional skills. Thus began my fascination of all things Oregon. An interest in Ralph Towner, the guitarist in the group, soon followed.

Manfred Eicher's ECM label has, over three decades, become both the refuge and the developing ground for countless musicians seeking an arena without labels. Like many others, I often purchase an ECM record without knowing the performers or listening to the music; the mere hope and chance of discovering the unpredictable is sufficient to generate interest and a purchase. Towner has been active for almost forty years and, although he is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive and important guitarist produced by this country during this time, he seemingly toils of the fridge of recognition. ECM has been his welcoming home and platform since 1973.

In June, Towner played only three dates in this country, all on the east coast, to promote his new sparkling and pristine new ECM CD Time Line. The fifth solo record in his long career aptly demonstrates that, as a coherent series, it is as important a collective guitar statement as Joe Pass' Virtuoso albums begun over thirty years ago. Fortunately, after performing at Carnegie's Hall's Zankel auditorium, Towner ventured a few hours south on the eastern seaboard.

Baltimore's An Die Musik was more crowded that I had ever seen it, with long lines and extra rows of wing back chairs greeting Towner. Still, the small room on the second floor of an eighty year old rowhouse can accommodate fewer than one hundred patrons, which is perhaps the ideal venue for such an intimate and uncompromising expression. Towner appeared thirty minutes late for the second set on a recent Friday evening, dressed in navy slacks, purple socks, tan shoes and a crumpled long sleeve shirt whose open sleeve buttons waved freely with his gestures. He began by picking slowing in the lower register, gently teasing the line with a line similar to a Bach prelude, before emerging with his composition "If .

For the next seventy minutes, he gently introduced each piece and led the audience through much of his career. The title composition from his record Anthem followed; it is at once a dramatic and soft spoken statement; he gracefully teased the phrases from the block chord melody to as series of partially improvised interludes. The latest record features, somewhat uncharacteristically, several standards, and "Come Rain or Come Shine was played in a completely strait forward manner; perhaps once again evoking the majestic solo efforts of Joe Pass.

"Always By Your Side , also contained within the new album, is quintessential Towner; the lilting and romantic melody drips with nostalgia and longing. But a jazz audience would not necessarily recognize the stylistic imperatives. There were hints of American folk music and Leo Kottke; the improvisation was limited accordingly. The melody was repeated and barely altered during its several statements, before the brief piece was concluded.

Perhaps the folk characteristics were more evident when Towner produced his twelve string guitar. During his brief tuning efforts of the instrument, the "ECM sound was immediately evident. The small room was flooded with a hint of reverberation and a dreamy evocation of "Solitary Woman . Once again, the music was completely uncategorizeable.

Towner quickly returned to the acoustic six string and, in preparing the instrument, placed a matchbook near the base of the bridge and between the strings. The result was a sound not dissimilar to an African thumb piano, wherein the sounds were severely muted, yet contained an element of percussive virtuosity. Little melody was discernable, but an exercise in free thinking and effects was evident.

Towner returned, once again, to the twelve string when playing Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat . The melody was not, however, simply stated. He latched onto a phrase of melody and improvised upon the same, until he returned to yet another phrase. Finally, the entire haunting composition was brought forth. The result was a blend of composition and improvisation.

After seventy minutes in what had become a stifling and steaming room, Towner concluded with "Oleander Etude . After the performance, Towner appeared at the wine bar in the downstairs gallery, just outside of the modest but well-stocked record store, to greet people, speak about music and sign a few autographs. The evening illustrated once again that the Baltimore intimate venue, without the relative formality of Zankel's auditorium, is but a small departure from a recital in a private home. The audience was indeed fortunate to hear such an important artist in this context.


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