06/23/06

Ralph Towner Solo at JVC

Of all the 2006 JVC Jazz Festival’s offerings, none was more significant than Ralph Towner’s first New York solo concert in 20 years. Happily, it was booked in one of the city’s most intimate venues, Zankel Hall, directly underneath Carnegie Hall. On the previous night, pianist Brad Mehldau graced the same stage. On the following night it was Charles Lloyd’s Sangam trio with percussionists Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. Upstairs in the older, larger space, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock held court, respectively, on two consecutive Fridays. Towner, 66, based in Rome, was in extraordinary company.

The first thing to say about Towner as a guitarist is that he is a pianist. A disciple of the late Bill Evans, he began his professional career on piano, and he continues to play the instrument live and on record as a member of the quartet Oregon. His approach on nylon-string classical and 12-string acoustic guitars reflects this training. He has mastered the fretboard and the sonic possibilities of the guitar like few others, but his harmonic imagination has a wider sweep than six or 12 strings can commonly express. At Zankel, when he played “The Lizards of Eraclea” and “Oleander Etude,” both from his latest ECM album Time Line, his fingers landed in the most unpredictable patterns, in clustered chord formations that yielded sounds of bracing density. His calmer, more melodic pieces, including “If” and “Always By Your Side,” had the feeling of poetry, enhanced by the room’s marvelous acoustics. Towner also pulled two selections from his memorable duo catalog with bassist Gary Peacock: “Tramonto,” replete with modernist jazz language, can be found on Oracle (1993), and “Toledo,” one of the finest compositions to have emerged in the last 10 years, is from A Closer View (1998). (“Toledo” also appears on Oregon’s 2005 CamJazz disc, Prime.)

Towner remains the oddest of birds in the contemporary music landscape. A master classical guitar technician, he performs with a regulation footstool and pauses between numbers to file his fingernails. He is also a risk-taking improviser with an impeccable sense of swing and an ability to keep ideas flowing in multiple registers, over highly unusual forms and progressions. His 12-string work is without parallel in the jazz idiom, although he’s doing less of it now than in years past. At Zankel, he used the 12-string for his gruff, Donald Fagen-esque interpretation of the Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” as well as his minor-key reverie “Solitary Woman,” which entailed tremolo strumming techniques and a closing chord that lingered and decayed to perfection. (Both pieces appear on Anthem, from 2001.) Naturally, “Solitary Woman” brought to mind Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” heard upstairs in Carnegie Hall several nights earlier, with bassist Greg Cohen displaying a similar flair for the final, deliciously resonant note.

Surprisingly, Towner took “Come Rain or Come Shine” at a much faster tempo than he does on Time Line, although he downshifted to play the out-chorus. Here, as on “Pork Pie Hat” and “Nardis,” the finale, he paid close attention—like a pianist—to the subtle interior harmonies of the songs. His cadenzas were harmonically expansive, technically inventive and lyrical. After obliging the adoring crowd with two encores, off he went.

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