Ralph Towner
Anthem
ECM (www.ecmrecords.com)

cd cover A surprise second solo album within just a few years of his last, Anthem is poised to takes its place among the great recorded efforts of this American classical guitar original. While 1997's solo outing "Ana" comprised convenient halves of fine six and twelve string pieces - the former chiefly composed, the latter improvised - this division spoiled the prospect of a unified listening experience. On his latest the more concentrated six-string classical guitar works outnumber his 12-string explorations. With a better proportioned, better integrated set, the best of what Towner can do shines unmistakably. More importantly each of these approaches, the intense ballet of storytelling, the conjuring of fugitive visions, and interpretation of standards, have all achieved a new economy. The wait for something as hypnotic and unerring and unified as Anthem has been on-going since the great Solo Concert LP from 1980.

Without any trace of technical strain or showiness in its execution, Anthem is consummately succinct and more relaxed than anything Towner has ever done. Silence and rest attain full meaning and impact between the usual intriguing mix of gestural melodies, chord colors, supple baroque rhythms and overall layered movement. Towner's inimitable tone dominates these fifty minutes and seventeen performances and it provides the broadest tonic. One can calmly look beyond his strategy to convey multiple voices at the same time for example and recline solely into the richness of his guitar timbres. But waiting for many close examinations are his twin talents of composing and improvising. Over the years Towner has sometimes erased the distinction between the two. This is no easy feat since improvising by far represents the more superficial grace. The result here is a music that sounds like it emerges whole, magically, of one piece, as strongly visual, deftly articulated pieces of time. His expertise in both areas has become equal parts natural complexity and immediacy.

Towner's compositions typically describe the dramas of specific characters at various distances. Here, it is the "Solitary Woman", "The Lutemaker" and "The Prowler". He wanders into private portraiture in pieces like "Simone", "Haunted" and "Raffish". And as always with Towner, though he is getting older (60) and generally more conservative, there remains a connection to the otherly. This impression of non-human reality is retained here in the (entirely?) improvised sketches "Four Comets" and "Three Comments". Rounding out the recording are two homages, one to Scott LeFaro ("Gloria's Step") and the other to Charles Mingus ("Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat"). Both have been opened up beyond mere jazz tunes and make attractive sense in this set. With a smart flowing mixture of the above, all aspects of Towner's solo art finally, mutually flatter each other in an album environment.

Towner emerges on Anthem neither recitalist nor jazz entertainer; he is a chamber music bard, an artist of what is truly a difficult instrument to play let alone from which coax convincing tales. Slowed to a pace that does not quickly over-sate, Anthem's breathtakingly textured theatre, reveals a collective musical intelligence reaching something close to ultimate maturity. And as a practical performer of a singular real-time soundworld, once described by labelmate Steve Tibbetts as a man with a brain in each finger, should rightly gain him the status of national treasure he has long deserved. - Steve Taylor

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