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Ralph Towner / Paolo Fresu: Chiaroscuro

John Kelman By

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Since moving to Italy over a decade ago, guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner's output as a leader has been woefully infrequent, with only two discs released this decade—2001's Anthem and 2006's Time Line, both on the label that's been his home for over 35 years, ECM. It's not that he hasn't been busy; he continues to work and record regularly with Oregon, the group that he co-founded nearly 40 years ago, heard most recently on the Grammy Award-nominated 1000 Kilometers (Cam Jazz, 2007), and on From a Dream (Material, 2009), in a stellar guitar trio with Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan.

If his solo albums are too few and far between, even scarcer are Towner-led albums in collaboration with others—his last one over a decade ago, the sublime A Closer View (ECM, 1998), in duet with bassist Gary Peacock. All of which makes Chiaroscuro a cause for celebration. It's always a good time for a new Towner record; but here, in duet with rising Italian trumpet star Paolo Fresu, Towner delivers a welcome set of largely original material—some new, some revisited—one standard and a couple of brief but compositionally focused in-the-moment creations.

As has been the case for the last 15 years, Towner focuses strictly on guitar, but this time adds baritone guitar to his arsenal of classical and 12-string acoustic guitars. The lower register instrument is featured on "Sacred Ground," a majestic solo piece that, with a brief reprise in duet with Fresu, bookends three tunes demonstrative of Towner's range. He's covered Miles Davis/Bill Evans' classic "Blue in Green" before, with vibraphonist Gary Burton on Slide Show (ECM, 1986); here it's an even freer interpretation, as Towner (on classical guitar) liberally stretches and compresses time while Fresu's muted trumpet is as spare as the late trumpet icon's, but with a lithe playfulness that's all his own.

"Doubled Up" is a new Towner composition, his baritone guitar creating an even richer landscape. His distinctive voicings—and a unique ability to be both implicit and direct with time, accompaniment, and counterpoint—support and interact deeply with Fresu's muted horn. The guitarist's ability to alternate between upper and lower registers, with passing chords suggestive of greater movement, creates an orchestral breadth that's deceptive and remarkable for an instrument with only six strings.

"Zephyr," first recorded with Oregon on Ecotopia (ECM, 1987), demonstrates how Towner can deconstruct music written as a solo vehicle into a multi-part arrangement, this time delegating the lyrical melody to Fresu, who sounds not unlike another trumpeter with whom the guitarist has collaborated, Kenny Wheeler on Old Friends, New Friends (ECM, 1979).

Towner's distinctively pianistic 12-string guitar is rarely used these days, making the dark improvisations that close the disc, "Two Miniatures" and "Postlude," all the more welcome. Towner may collaborate rarely, but his choices in partners have always been beyond astute, and with the intimate Chiaroscuro he introduces a new partner who, hopefully, will remain an active one on future recordings.

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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