The resurgent profile of the acoustic guitar over the last decade raises the question: What about the guys who have been doing it all along? Both the classical and 12-string guitars have played a big part in Ralph Towner’s music ever since he pursued parallel studies in jazz piano and European classical guitar during the 1960s. He began recording during the next decade with the group Oregon and ever since he’s crafted a hybrid of European classical, American folk, jazz and free styles with them, as well as a series of solo, duo and ensemble records made for ECM Records.
On a good day, Towner delivers that label’s aesthetic at its best by playing music that is atmospheric and beautifully crafted, but also free of the sentimentality and blandness that gave acoustic guitar records a bad name in the ’80s. However, he’s also capable of staying stuck in a solemn prettiness of a sort that Jack Rose might have had in mind when he reassured one interviewer that he didn’t play wine-tasting music.
The title Chiarascuro testifies to Towner’s concern with subtle shading, but this is one CD that stays away from that too-precious dark side. The influence of Miles Davis circa Kind Of Blue does loom large over the efforts, especially when Sardinian-born trumpet/flugelhorn player Paolo Fresu plays a muted horn on a cover of Davis’s “Blue In Green.” But Towner, who recently turned 70 years old, and Fresu, who is 21 years his junior, spike their well-exercised gifts for serene lyricism with enough contrary flow to keep this record from turning into a placid pool. The guitar solo “Sacred Place” presents another lesson learned from Davis without ever sounding like him. Playing a lower-pitched baritone guitar, Towner plucks appropriately churchy figures that develop so deliberately that you can look between the notes the way you might gaze through a stained-glass window. There’s also plenty of space for Fresu to join in, which he does in a reprise of the piece later in the record. Stated with sweet simplicity, it’s the spoonful of sugar that braces you for the out-of-time suspension and questing melodic exploration that the two men accomplish on the brief, all-improvised “Two Miniatures.”
Could you call this wine-tasting music? Perhaps. It trades in a testosterone-free stillness and unabashedly virtuosic precision that is miles from the sturdy virility and propulsive motion that Rose, John Fahey and numerous others have brought to the acoustic guitar over the years. But it also has a steeliness of its own, more refined but still strong. And if you feel like nipping from the fruit of the vine whilst listening, go ahead. After all, both Fresu and Towner live in Italy these days, so it’s entirely possible that the record was hatched over a bottle of vino. And the stuff can still give you a buzz.