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Ralph Towner: The Accidental Guitarist

Mario Calvitti By

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AAJ: How was the band Oregon formed?

RT: I was hired by Paul Winter for his Consort and he said that he needed a percussionist and a bassist, and I said "I have the perfect percussionist and bassist," because Glen had met Collin Walcott in jam sessions in the city, and we got together, we all played for this folksinger named Tim Hardin in Woodstock. I thought it was gonig to be a folk festival while we were driving up there, but it turned out to be THE Woodstock festival... we had to be flown in by helicopter. This was very strange for a "little folk festival." We got above the venue and we looked down and we saw almost half a million people in one place, and that was quite a shock!

Actually the most important thing about that festival wasn't the music at all, but it was just that it could happen, and the feeling was so benevolent. There was such a good will, and of course it was completely spontaneous, they didn't know this was gonna happen, and it was never possible to repeat it, because it was something that was spontaneous. Everything after that became a money making machine, without that great magic that the first one had. I don't think I played in any other thing quite that big!

To get back to Paul Winter, Glen, Collin and me joined his Consort which I was with for maybe a year, year and a half or something. That group had such an interesting instrumentation with the oboe [played by Paul McCandless], it was really a great motivation to write original music for this particular group. Paul wasn't playing much original music before I showed up. I brought a lot of the music. The four of us with McCandless, we hit it off in such a way, that bond was already there, we did a lot of touring with Paul, thanks to him we basically were already a "group within a group." We came away from that tour with a great experience having put a lot of written music out so that we were ready to go on our own.

AAJ: How did your first album with the Consort, Road, come about?

RT: We had been travelling for seven weeks all over the United States. We finally arrives in Los Angeles where we had set up a soundstage just to play our repertoire for producer Phil Ramone. He was a more pop oriented producer, but famous for his sound quality. He agreed to record but he didn't know who wrote what pieces. We started playing a lot of pieces by Paul Winter, (not really written as much as suggested), and we also played all of my pieces that we had in our repertoire. Phil Ramone ended up selecting just my pieces, and a few arrangements that Paul Winter did... [laughs] I think he recorded some live concerts, but only one tune was recorded in the studio and that was "Icarus." Phil Ramone said that it was going to be the hit tune, so he wanted to do it perfectly in the studio. We did that when we got back home in New York City, and we did it in one take. Paul Winter could not believe it, he'd never done it in his life! [laughs]... Anyway, we're really proud of Road, I still think that first one is the best version of Icarus.

AAJ: Did you have trouble finding a record contract at that time?

RT: At that time in New York, that's when everything was happening. The Mahavishnu was getting started, Weather Report, a lot of music that was different. I met Manfred Eicher in New York around 1970. I was playing piano and a little bit of guitar with Dave Holland at one of his concerts. Dave introduced me to Manfred who had this this new, and still small, label. But the first producers to become interested in the group were those at Vanguard Records, who came to the "Free Music Store," a series of free concerts managed by the WBAI radio station in New York in an old church on weekends. We would start playing at midnight and play without stopping until 6AM, but we would switch, sometime we had two people play and the other two would go out and get donuts and coffee or something, but we kept the music going. We built up quite an underground following. That's how we started with Vanguard. At the same time I think Manfred Eicher was interested in the group but he only had a few records out at that time. We could have started with Manfred at that point but the allure of a big American company seemed more appropriate somehow... We ended up signing a 9 record contract that took us a lot of time to fulfill. When we finally finished off that contract we got a tremendous offer from Elektra Records, at the height of our popularity. We recorded Out of the Woods with them, probably the most popular Oregon album ever.

AAJ: Tell us something about your work with Manfred Eicher for ECM.

RT: That had to be the most important thing ever for me, being one of the first people on that label. Those first years ECM produced some classic recordings: first time solos by Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, combinations of instruments that no one else had enough imagination to put together. These great piano players would only record when they were playing with a quartet, and even a trio maybe... but Manfred Eicher had a great ear and eye for the particular kind of musicians that he wanted to play solo. The whole approach for ECM from the beginning was to offer the quality of a classical label like Deutsche Grammophon, the best vinyl possible for the LPs, and keeping the costs of recordings down. All recordings were done in two days or less, and mixed on the third day. This kept the studio costs low. But money was also spent to ensure the studio had excellent pianos... Steinways with a piano tuner always present. All these great jazz improvisers were playing on really poor instruments most of the time. In Bill Evans records sometimes the piano was not in tune, and Bud Powell recorded on atrocious pianos. So keeping costs down, and the advances were very small for everybody including Keith, the money could be invested on quality, and you also got to keep your publishing rights... the record company didn't take them. For the first ten years or so ECM would even book tours without taking a fee. The result was these great records that would pay for themselves in a few weeks, and no one had ever heard jazz musicians at such a high quality. This was really due to Manfred's vision. And the other main thing is, every recording I've ever done my whole career is still available, it's a company that doesn't just drop records from its catalogue.


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