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Ralph Towner: Anthem

On Anthem, a solo guitar recital with a classicalish contour, Towner sounds perfectly content with lyrical, delicate pacing and simple, folkish themes. Here, as with his many other recordings, Towner goes well beyond single-note and solid-chord playing and endows his acoustic 12-string and nylon-string guitars with ensemblelike motion and thickness. As usual, picking out what Towner has composed and what he’s improvising is nearly impossible. All of his tunes have a through-composed symmetry but often maintain a spark of excitement that comes with improvised music. He builds his plaintive tunes from winding bass lines, independent blocks of moving harmony and capricious melodic lines that seem to want to dart just ahead of their supporting chords. Towner not only knows how to handle and appreciates acoustics (as opposed to moonlighting, heavy-handed electric players), but also exploits a much wider range of expression with his instrument than most, as when open strings slip into his rich chords or when he coaxes a myriad of textures from a single note.

With two exceptions, every song on Anthem is Towner’s and he takes a similar strategy on most of these-simple melodies and repetition form the backbone of this music-which lends a certain sameness to the program. A bit of edge here and there could have helped remedy this, but with the exception of the 12-string feature, “Three Comments,” Towner bypasses the subtly dissonant touch he’s brought to other recitals. Towner also cultivates an almost defiantly nonjazzy tone here; it’s nothing new to those familiar with his music, but it may turn some off. Just to prove he can still hang, though, he includes a moving cover of Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” and a brilliantly swinging yet completely in-character cover of Scott LaFaro’s “Gloria’s Steps.”

Originally Published