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Ralph Towner / Wolfgang Muthspiel / Slava Grigoryan: Travel Guide

John Kelman By

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Following an early series of ensemble releases for ECM (the label he's called home as a leader since 1973), Ralph Towner ushered in the new millennium by focusing on solo explorations with Anthem (2001) and Time Line (2006). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but after classic records like Solstice (1975) and Batik (1978), there are those who have long pined for the days when the guitarist/pianist collaborated more regularly with others beyond Oregon, the groundbreaking group shared with bassist Glen Moore and woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless for more than 40 years.

The same trio appearing on Travel Guide—Towner, electric guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan (previously monikered MGT)—broke Towner's trend with the hard-to-find From a Dream, released on Muthspiel's Material Records, but a broader international audience saw change in 2010, when Towner released Chiaroscuro (ECM), a sublime duo date with Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

After clocking up some significant touring time touring From a Dream, Travel Guide finally exposes this stellar guitar trio to a larger audience and, beyond the benefit of global distribution, ECM's crystalline approach to sound suits this trio particularly well.

If Out of a Dream was an admittedly extraordinary recording that, in addition to a handful of new compositions, also included a some well-known Towner pieces and Miles Davis/Bill Evans' "Nardis"—a tune Towner has covered in numerous past contexts—Travel Guide ups the ante with a book of completely new material split evenly down the middle between Towner and Muthspiel; the program even alternates consistently between the two for the first six tracks.

Doubling up, compositionally, for the final four tracks, Muthspiel's sparsely constructed "Die blaue Stunde" features Towner's 12-string guitar that, in so many ways, defined his voice early on but which has largely—and sadly—been retired in live performance in recent years, while the more up-tempo "Nico und Mithra," finds the Austrian guitarist expanding the trio's reach with a pitch shifter. Two Towner pieces close the record: the solo classical guitar miniature, "Tarry," which acts as a prelude to "Museum of Light," where Muthspiel layers a warm-toned motivic melody over Towner's classical guitar for a dark-hued conclusion to an album whose overall austere mood is well-served by the monochromatic cover of a leaf-barren forest.

Three guitarists could present a challenge in delineation, but Towner's approach is so distinctive in its ascending and descending lyricism that it often becomes a process of elimination. Things are clearer still on Muthspiel's ardently contrapuntal "Windsong" where, with Grigoryan's baritone guitar in the right channel, Muthspiel's electric in the left, and Towner's 12-string occupying a dominating central position in the mix, it acts as instruction for the balance of the set.

Although the entire 51-minute set is predicated on structure, the improvisational acumen of all involved provides plenty of surprise throughout—Grigoryan the most noticeable, perhaps, if only because he largely lives in the classical world. But as genre lines continue to blur and, in some cases, dissolve entirely, recordings like the rigorous yet open-minded Travel Guide demonstrate there are plenty of meeting points for those unconstrained by false definitions of style or approach.

Track Listing: The Henrysons; Father Time; Windsong; Duende; Amarone Trio; Travel Guide; Die blaue Stunde; Nico und Mithra; Tarry; Museum of Light.

Personnel: Ralph Towner: classical and 12-string guitars; Wolfgang Muthspiel: electric guitar; Slava Grigoryan: classical and baritone guitars.

Title: Travel Guide | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records

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