From the first luminous minutes of Ralph Towner’s new solo guitar album, Time Line, it’s clear that we’re in good hands and on a musical journey that’s by turns pensive and wise, atmospheric and focused. Between the opening track, “The Pendant,” and an unusually introspective, Euro-flavored 12-string version of the Gershwin standard “My Man’s Gone Now,” veteran unplugged-guitar hero Towner shows he’s very much in creative and technical command.
On this, his fourth solo project for ECM in 20 years, Towner covers a gamut of moods and colors, from the tart, post-Villa Lobos angularity of “The Hollows” to the bright-toned optimism of “If,” and the emotionally mercurial micro-suite “Five Glimpses”—the album’s centerpiece, despite its pocket-sized scale. Towner mostly sticks to classical nylon-string guitar here, though he dips into the ringing tones of his 12-string on “Freeze Frame.”
Like few musicians alive, let alone guitarists, Towner manages to bridge the supposedly disparate worlds of jazz and classical music. Many of these pieces could be notated and seen as much-needed expansion of the solo classical guitar repertoire, except that most classical players aren’t gifted with the improvisational impulse also critical to his musical voice. That leaves Towner in a lofty but lonely place in the guitar pantheon.