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Ralph Towner: The Accidental Guitarist

Mario Calvitti By

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AAJ: Another very good duo is the one with Javier Girotto, which started with a concert in Rome in 2010. It's a good complement to your duo with Paolo Fresu. Playing with Javier brings out the energy and the latin feel in your music, it is a different approach from what you have with Paolo. Are there any plans for a duo recording?

RT: I remember I had sprained my arm or something before that concert in Rome. I couldn't raise my arm, I tried all kinds of things, and Javier was calling doctors, and I just barely got it together to play that concert. Anyway the concert was good. The fun about Javier is his energy. It is still an active project, we did a nice tour in Argentina. There aren't any plans right now for a duo recording, but I should consider it. I also did a recording with his group Aires Tango [Duende].

AAJ: Do you have some favorite album of yours?

RT: It is so hard to pick just one. I was always very proud of Solstice. Among the solo albums, I liked Blue Sun, that was my one man band record. In that recording I played every instrument that I can play, and overdubbed. It was really an interesting project, and sounds like a lot of people, not just one person. The music I wrote for it was very nice. Most of them I'm quite proud of, some of them it takes me a while to get used to, immediately after I recorded I'm not very convinced how good they are, I really need a little distance to hear them, but when I hear them much later, I'm usually surprised how well they came out.

AAJ: In 1992 you recorded the Original Soundtrack for an Italian movie, "Un'altra vita." How did that come about?

RT: The Director of the Movie, Carlo Mazzacurati, was a fan of my recordings, and wanted a score that had a real content, something that went well beyond "just ambience." Each piece was connected to a specific character, and hopefully stood on its own. This was my first feature film soundtrack, maybe my only one, although I've done many short films and made a few appearances with other composer's recordings for film.

AAJ: How did you develop your improvisational style on the guitar?

RT: Well, it comes from being a pianist. My intention was to use guitar as a piano and with the same approach, including being able to play each note in a chord, control the volume of every note (like bring one note out and let the others perfectly even). This is a piano technique, classical, when you play an accompaniment for yourself and you have the main line you don't play the accompaniment so loud that you can't hear the theme. How you organize what someone hears is the most important aspect when you have multiple parts going in the piece of music. So, that's the one thing I've been doing using all your fingers as plectrums on the right hand. Basically it ends up being a sort of lute but more advanced> It's more like a piano in the way I hear it and the way I use it. Guitar isn't just a strumming instrument for me, it's a whole world unto itself...

AAJ: When did you start playing the 12-string guitar?

RT: That was with Paul Winter, I didn't want to play the 12-string, it was very bad for my fingernails. He was trying to imitate the sound he'd heard from Joni Mitchell recordings, the way Joni played with the 12-string was really interesting, she made nice tunings and she used it in a nice way. Anyway, Paul had got a very nice 12-string from the Guild company and insisted that I play it. I said "Oh no, it's just going to ruin my fingernails..." but finally I gave in and I started playing it and realized that if I played it like a classical guitar, hitting two strings at once with one finger, like a classical guitar basically, it started sounding like a harpsichord. I also discovered that it had this wonderful ringing sound. So I started writing music for it that would sound good on that instrument, and something I would like, I would even tune all the 12 strings to different pitches sometimes.

AAJ: What kind of music do you like as a listener?

RT: I love Vince Mendoza's arrangements and his playing. I've been on two of his records. He's not only a great arranger but also a composer. I love Vince's approach, he's kind of the successor to Gil Evans. I love Miles' quintet, I love what Wayne Shorter does, he's so unique, and classical music, the Russians in general, Shostakovich in particular.

AAJ: Do you listen to other guitar players?

RT: I'm not so much a guitar fan as much as I am piano fan... that's the difference, I was never drawn to a guitar until I heard that it could do a lot of what the piano does plus more in a sense of having more colours than the piano. Being a composer I love piano harmonies and voice leading and Bach, and that's a very strong part of my music background, the way Bach's music fits together, so I have a love for the Baroque. The things that I like I try to incorporate in my own approach, it's almost more conceptual than it is literal... I mean I don't copy someone's lick and I don't use a lot of quotes. I'm trying to capture the essence of something and boil it down to hit a listener. It's nice to hear when they play something that's not immediately connected with a particular ethnic group, but uses the essence of that ethnic music sometimes. As we did with Oregon. We were not trying to play Indian music or Brazilian music, but we were using a lot of the instruments and the elements from those musical heritages. That basically was the result we ended up, with an oboe player as our lead instrument and the sitar and the 12-string, not a very ordinary combination, the only standard thing was the bass.


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