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Ralph Towner: The Accidental Guitarist

Mario Calvitti By

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AAJ: However, it has taken a bit of time to have Five Years Later [1982 LP in duo with John Abercrombie that was released on CD in 2014] on digital...

RT: That was the only case. I don't know what happened with that. John and I would never figure that out, but here it is finally, and I think they also made a vinyl version of it. In general, everything I've ever recorded for the label is available. It's like your life's work is still there to be purchased or heard. No other record company ever functioned like that, it's very idealistic and it still kind of continues that way.

AAJ: Your collaborations with other ECM artists were Eicher's choice?

RT: No, that's my idea, I would choose the players. The Solstice group [with Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Jon Christensen] was my idea, I had heard their recordings and thought "Wow, that would be a nice group to put together," so I wrote specific music for that group of people. Every time I have a recording I try to write the music that I think will sound good for that specific bunch of people. So I ask Manfred if he likes it, he says "ok," and he has ideas too about some combinations, but basically all those combinations were my idea.

The Dis duet album with Jan Garbarek was Jan's idea, or Jan and Manfred together maybe. It includes Jan's compositions and I had to learn them and find tunings and things that would work because we were playing with a windharp. They had recorded this aeolian harp put on a cliff over the Norwegian sea, and the wind blew through it and there'd be a lot of strings all tuned to this wonderful chord. The wind would gust in, changing the octaves... Jan had recorded several different tunes and sent them to me with his melodies and I would find some way to make the 12-string blend in with this aeolian harp, it was a nice thing...

AAJ: When you recorded Batik in 1978 you used the same rhythm section (Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette) that Bill Evans had, for just a few months, 10 years earlier. Did this have a special significance for you?

RT: Eddie had just quit Bill's trio after a decade or so with him. He is such a great player, and of course we understood each other's playing. Jack is the ultimate jazz drummer, and we had become very good friends after having done an ECM tour of the United States in the mid-Seventies. Jack was also a Bill Evans alumni, and the combination of our concepts seemed a natural fit.

AAJ: Another nice combination was with the guitar of John Abercrombie

RT: Oh yeah, that's a lifelong duo, and a really great combination. We were best friends and we only lived about two blocks away from each other in New York. We did a lot of touring and a lot of those creative loft jam sessions in New York, John and I and Marc Copland. I don't know how long we lasted as a duo... 10-15 years. Not everybody can play that well in duo even if they sound like they could. The instrument is important, but also the way you play and the music that you listen to all your life, or just your sensibility about music. John had heard a lot of avantgarde music but he's also a great blues player, and people don't seem to realize how much blues there is in my playing also, the rhythmic thing is tied to a lot of stuff.

AAJ: You have also played with Egberto Gismonti on Sol do meio dia. How did you meet?

RT: Yeah, that was a nice recording, beautiful tunes, I love his piano playing. I remember when I met Egberto, I was living in New York and he came to my apartment and he brought this 12-string guitar that had been made for me by someone in Brazil, and actually it wasn't a very good 12-string at all... We spent the whole afternoon jamming and I think I taped it.

AAJ: Speaking of other ECM guitarists, have you ever met Bill Frisell?

RT: Bill and I are old friends from way back!

AAJ: Have you done anything together?

RT: No, that would be nice, it never occurred to us, and he's off recording on some different labels. My true electric guitar companion was Abercrombie, and I almost didn't record with any other guitar players because of that combination was to me such a deep part in my life. I don't make that many recordings, I don't record just because I can. Making a recording to me is still a big thing, and I want it to be something that I've written for and I thought about and somebody I'm really interested in playing with.

Bill Frisell would be great I'm sure. Bill has a wonderful way of playing and also putting together recordings. He's just like a musicologist to me, he knows where the music comes from and what it means, its history, and how he includes it in his way of playing it's really brilliant. This reverence for where the music comes from, that's what defines him the most for me. Music is personal, everybody hears music in a different way, in a way you're not quite sure how they use their music or how music affects them.

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