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Ralph Towner: The Accidental Guitarist

Mario Calvitti By

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Ralph Towner is a rather atypical figure in the vast world of jazz guitar. His instruments of choice are the classical guitar, which when he started, in the '60s, was played almost exclusively by guitarists related to Brazilian music like Charlie Byrd, Laurindo Almeida and Bola Sete, and the 12-string guitar, very common in the folk world but virtually unknown to jazz. These choices led Towner to develop his signature instrumental technique without reference to any other guitarist. In doing so, he synthesized his various musical experiences as a self-taught pianist, with degrees in trumpet and composition, who discovered guitar at the age of 22.

A founding member of Oregon in the early '70s, the band that pioneered a bold and innovative fusion of jazz, classical, folk and world music, Towner is one of the prominent names in the roster of the ECM Records label, which has recently released My Foolish Heart after publishing, since 1972, almost his entire discography as a leader.

All About Jazz met with Ralph Towner, in his home in Rome, to learn more about his career and his particular approach to music and to guitar.

All About Jazz: Let's start with some biographical information about your musical education. Did you start your formal training on trumpet?

Ralph Towner: Yes, I was six years old when I started with the trumpet. I was also already playing piano, my mother was a piano teacher but I was such a stubborn child and I refused to take lessons from her, I would just listen to all the piano lessons in the back of the room. I always had this particular gift, composing and improvising is something I did naturally from the very beginning. I really started developing when I started imitating recordings and piano players, but I didn't really get seriously into playing the piano until later.

I played jazz trumpet, I was born in 1940 and I had two much older brothers that were both in second World War and they collected a lot of swing band music and some Duke Ellington and all the Benny Goodman and even Nat "King" Cole Trio recordings, so I learned all those standards, plus playing them on trumpet books, and my mother would play the piano to accompany me. I started playing in Dixieland bands and dance bands when I was really young, my brother-in-law played bass in this dance band and I was allowed to play in this club, I think it was a hotel bar, at 12, and he would take me out out during the intermissions because it was illegal for me to be in the bar [laughs]. I didn't really get interested in becoming a pianist until I heard Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro. I heard a lot of other piano players and I could imitate them a little bit, but my piano was for classical composition. I went to University [where he met and befriended bassist Glen Moore, his future band-mate in Oregon] and my diploma ended up being in composition.

I still hadn't discovered classical guitar until I was in the last year of my university studies, when I heard a student playing it. I was very fascinated and I somehow managed to buy one for almost nothing, I remember it costed about 100$ or something. I started to teach myself and I realized I was not gonna go very far, and play it at the level that I realized it needed to be played at. So I asked around and was told there was a great master professor at the Music Academy in Vienna. I somehow managed to get enough money by working in the summer, got to Europe and hitchhiked all the way to Vienna. I also managed to get accepted in that famous Academy. I only knew two classical guitar pieces, but it was very obvious to that panel of professors that I was a musician, so I got admitted.

The professor was Karl Scheit, a brilliant musical teacher, he didn't speak English so I learned from him in German. The way he taugh was a very wonderful step by step procedure, his whole intention was making the guitar sound to its full potential. I used to live in a single room I managed to find, rented for 12$ a month, I ate hardly anything, and I practiced 9 to 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for a year. At the end of the year I could play classical concerts. I returned to Vienna a second time but by then I had furthered my guitar studies, I had heard Brazilian music and started playing Baden Powell kind of things. Then I went back to studying the piano, the first year I was in Vienna I didn't touch the piano, I didn't go near it, I was completely concentrated on the guitar.

AAJ: Have you ever had other contacts with your classical guitar teacher, Karl Scheit, before his passing in 1993? Do you know how he regarded your musical career?

RT: About nine years after I finished my studies with him, I returned to Vienna to play with my group Oregon in a beautiful gilded concert hall (which I had never had access to when I was there as a student). Karl Scheit was in attendance, and he was thoroughly excited with the concert. He rushed back-stage at the end of the concert, grabbed my arm and took me immediately to his favorite restaurant (hitherto only reserved for Julian Bream and other famous classical guitarists as his guest). He raved about the music and the beauty of improvising with tablas, which he had always longed to do. He came to several of my solo concerts in the following years. This was the Hollywood ending every student would dream about, seeing their mentor in such perfect circumstances.

AAJ: So it was classical guitar that attracted you from the beginning...

RT: Yeah, it was just classical, and the playing of classical music and the classical technique really, which got the most sound, the most colors and articulation, more than it was required to play brazilian music or jazz at that time. When I studied the classical guitar all I played was classical music and I tried to stay away from improvising. The first year that I came back to the United States I started working as a jazz pianist, half the set would be jazz piano and the other half would be bossanova and I might play one classical piece. But what happened in that first break from studying in Vienna and playing bossanova is that my technique got worse and worse, the sound was disappearing and I knew something was going wrong. I had achieved such a high level playing classical guitar and I listened to it slowly disappear. Playing just Brazilian music wasn't that demanding enough, it didn't need much articulation. A lot of rhythmic things were exciting and the chords were all borrowed from jazz and the harmony was related to jazz, that's what attracted me, but it cost me my facility on the guitar, and I realized I'd better go back.

So I returned to Vienna and I paid much more attention, and at the end of the second year I really evolved my attention to detail on the guitar. I started writing music that sounded comfortable on the classical guitar, but also including all the colours and dynamics and expressions that you hear in any kind of classical music, treating it more like an orchestra playing and really using those possibilities on the guitar, and I included articulation, attack and different tone colours in my improvisation.

AAJ: Back then, there weren't many jazz players using classical guitar, maybe Charlie Byrd...

RT: There weren't any at all, Charlie Byrd came along but let's say he wasn't very talented. He was the only one playing what sounded like Brazilian music, and it was quite fine for him to play some of that music and record it for the United States to hear. People used to think that he was really something, but he wasn't actually very proficient. He had the right idea, though, I mean, the music he was attracted to, and what he was playing. Anyway, when I came back to the States I started working more on the piano and was able to play gigs on the piano.

That's how I kept improving, I do everything in blocks in my whole life, instruments, kinds of music, etc. I would spend a lot of time on each instrument learning it and by the time I was really close to a finished product I was ready to move to New York in 1968. So it really was a combination of a lot of experiences, direct experience with this kind of music, modern classical music, classical guitar music, and Brazilian music, I got involved in that wonderful sound and its great songs, Jobim, people like that. And then of course Bill Evans was the big, big influence. Harmonically for me he was it, but I also admire the way Bill, Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro played together, and the way they responded to each other.

AAJ: For Brazilian music, your main influence was Baden Powell?

RT: A little bit, not that much. Joao Gilberto, was more interesting to me, but that basically was a standard way to play accompaniment. I did a tour with Astrud Gilberto, it was 1970, I think George Mraz was the bassist and Airto Moreira was the drummer. We played a couple of concerts, not many, but I did play with quite a lot of Brazilians in New York. Actually I have to say a big part of my playing comes from Brazilians, I don't think people quite notice it this much, but that's a big part of my musical influence, especially Jobim's writing, I was really influenced by that.

AAJ: What bands were you playing with at that time? How was New York's music scene?

RT: I was just a freelance pianist in New York basically... I was playing guitar with some Brazilian musicians when I got to New York. Airto Moreira was one of them. I succeeded quite well as a jazz pianist. I played with Freddie Hubbard and even with Stan Getz. There weren't too many great piano players at that time so I had a pretty high rating. Since then the level of piano players has gone so far beyond mine as far as technique was concerned, but I understood jazz and how to play it.

Anyway, it was a great scene, a lot of music was happening in New York. I think one reason was that it was still very cheap to live in Manhattan. I was living in the Greenwich Village, the West Village, for about 120$ a month and I didn't have to work too many wedding gigs to pay the rent... you had lots of free time to get together with the other musicians all afternoons, nights... Once, in the middle of the night the phone rang and this guy who was running a nice jazz loft kind of club, said "Ralph come down, Sonny Rollins is here and there's no one for him to play with," so I spent all night playing duets with Sonny Rollins!

New York was great, it was the cauldron where all these bands came out, music was changing. We would do demo tapes with other people, half of Mahavishnu Orchestra was there, everyone was connected with everyone else. We were always trying combinations of groups and people, we all played and jammed together, composed and worked on pieces. They were jam sessions but people weren't playing standards any more, they were trying everybody's new pieces, so we were very cooperative and very constructive. You had to be a good player and had to know jazz to be involved with these musicians. I lived in New York City from 1968 to 1982, so that has been my favourite hometown, I still belong there somehow. That whole early Seventies era was just amazing. Only that level of creativity can explain why a group with a great jazz base like Weather Report would even consider doing a tune with a 12-string guitarist like me...

I remember in 1968 I went over to Wayne Shorter's apartment, and we listened to each other's music and we spent all afternoon, and this was before Weather Report was formed, I think he was having this idea of a group. The call for this Weather Report recording idea came much later, 1972 I think, but that's all a product of New York. Jaco Pastorius was in New York too, he came to my apartment almost the first week he was there. He knocked on my door in Greenwich Village and introduced himself saying "My name is Jaco Pastorius and I'm the world's greatest bassist, and I wrote this tune for you," and he comes marching right in with this piece, impossible to play, all harmonics... and he had also recorded an LP, "You gotta listen to this" and slams the record onto my turntable and starts playing it... I don't know how long he stayed but we listened to those stuff, and he was amazing, then he left, he did that with several other musicians. I think he even played for the Board of Directors of Columbia Records, he walked right in to the board with his bass and he played like for the president of Columbia Records using the the same line "I'm the world's greatest bassist." He was a real character.
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