In an essay about Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges asserted that great writers create their precursors. Guitarist Ralph Towner makes no secret about the influence of pianist Bill Evans on his musical style. He places "My Man's Gone Now at the end of this new solo recital, raising expectations of an Evans-like record. (Evans didn't compose the song but will be forever linked to it, thanks to his classic trio's recording from the Village Vanguard in June 1961.)
Evans' music is melancholy, evoking late nights, smoky clubs and unhealthy living; like Billie Holiday, he excelled at deconstructing popular songs that bordered on the trite, finding unforeseen depths of feeling in them. Towner's solo classical guitar, in contrast, evokes sunshine: languorous sambas on Rio beaches, earnest folksongs in a Marin County meadow, bright cantatas in an Austrian church with fantastic ringing acoustics for an audience of locals. (In fact, Time Line was recorded under circumstances a little like the Austrian scenario, although I can't vouch for sunny weather outside or the presence of curious villagers.)
Can Towner really absorb the music of his tortured precursor? Yes, he can: from the first passages of the vaguely Brazilian "Pendant that opens the album, Evans's deft harmonic touch is there, even in the midst of the crisp and contented music about flowers, fall colors and lizards.
Time Line alternates more or less systematically between mannered, classically-oriented pieces ("Oleander Etude, "The Hollows, "The Lizards of Eraclea ) and warm, jazz-inflected ones (like the lovely "Always By Your Side and "If a Towner original, not the 1973 hit by Bread). Towner's breathtaking technical virtuosity would be more astonishing only if it were more frequently deployed for merely ostentatious effect; instead, it serves the compositions.
The continuity and coherence of what is effectively a classical guitar suite is broken somewhat artlessly with the last two pieces: "Freeze Frame, a Towner original, not the 1981 hit by the J. Geils Band, and the Evans cover mentioned above. Here, Towner switches to a twelve-string guitar, the sound of the steel strings bouncing all over the church walls, summoning forth a very different sonic universe. Moreover, "My Man's Gone Now (like "Come Rain or Come Shine ) is a bit of a letdown as Towner imposes a rhythm and tempo that are too self-consciously jazzy in comparison to the assured character of the preceding music.
We can hear Evans in Towner's music. Now for the Borges precursor test: can we hear Towner in Evans'? Go back and listen to "Gloria's Step from the '61 Village Vanguard set. There's a hint of guitar-like sunshine there that you might not have heard before. Time Line, in a small way, changes the way we hear an older masterpiece. That's what Borges was talking about: this is a kind of magic.
The Pendant; Oleander Etude; Always By Your Side; The Hollows; Anniversary Song; If; Five Glimpses (I, II, III, IV, V); The Lizards Of Eraclea; Turning Of The Leaves; Come Rain Or Come Shine; Freeze Frame; My Man
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