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Ralph Towner / Paolo Fresu: Chiaroscuro

David McLean By

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Continuing his long and fruitful relationship with Manfred Eicher's ECM Records—yielding a slew of successful solo records and concerts, acclaimed group work with Oregon and Solstice (also featuring Jan Garbarek), and duo work with John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock and Gary Burton—guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner has become something of an icon for the German label. Chiaroscuro marks another chapter in Towner's longstanding interest in duo work, this time pairing himself with Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. This largely restrained and meditative duo explores, over the course of ten pieces including Miles Davis/Bill Evans' "Blue in Green," the tonal variants of brass and strings, with a hint of Mediterranean atmosphere not dissimilar to bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi's ECM recordings.

"Punta Giara" is Chiaroscuro's jazziest piece. It's also the only instance of double-tracking, with Fresu's lush combination of trumpet and flugelhorn. Combining Kenny Wheeler's warm lyricism and fellow-Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava's distinctive rasp, Fresu's tone and range provide various opportunities for the duo to investigate timbral juxtaposition, the warmth of both horns emphasizing the crisp clarity of Towner's masterful playing. The haze of Fresu's voice swells underneath Towner's precise performance until the song becomes an interlocking, minor scale exchange between cascading horns and strings.



Two versions of "The Sacred Place"—the first, a solo feature for Towner—are by far Chiaroscuro's most serene pieces. Centered on a triumphant but melancholy melody, Towner's rustic, shimmering guitar is soaked with Fresu's fruity horn on the reprise, elevating the beauty of its melody.

Whereas Chiaroscuro's opening songs are characterized by a concerted effort to fill space naturally created by minimal performances, as it nears its end the compositions turn darker and more experimental. The gap between notes is stretched and exploited to create a more disquieting and, paradoxically, sonically rich affair. Fresu ascends on "Two Minatures" as Towner stabs the trumpeter's flight with jagged 12-string lines, the octaves singing with an eastern vernacular. Grating harmonics are married with Towner's deep, oaken percussives on "Postlude," with Fresu's tone increasingly more raspy towards its conclusion, creating an atmosphere unheard elsewhere on the album.

Chiaroscuro may be a misleading and inappropriate title for an album largely characterized by its warmth. While the first eight tunes are, indeed, beautiful and calming, they are both more predictable and less angular, less challenging. Hopefully this exciting duo's future work will be more equally balanced to highlight the fullest scope of their abilities.


Track Listing: Wistful Thinking; Punta Giara; Chiaroscuro; Sacred Place; Blue in Green; Doubled Up; Zephyr; Sacred Place (reprise); Two Miniatures; Postlude.

Personnel: Ralph Towner: classical, 12-string and baritone guitars; Paolo Fresu: trumpet, flugelhorn.

Title: Chiaroscuro | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records


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