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Ralph Towner

A founding member of Oregon, Ralph Towner is one of few jazz musicians to make acoustic guitar his specialty. His playing -- on nylon string classical and 12-string acoustic -- weaves classical motifs and international folk styles through jazz harmony and rhythm. His recorded catalogue is redolent with iconic musical encounters. Diary, his sophomore 1973 outing, showcased his overdubbing technique for guitars and piano. Ensemble albums including 1975's Solstice, 1978's Batik and 1979's Old Friends, New Friends are among his finest works. 1984's solo Blue Sun added minimal synth to the instrumental mélange. 2001's solo Anthem offered originals and jazz covers. 2008's Chiaroscuro was recorded in duo with trumpeter Paolo Fresu. 2012's Travel Guide showcased a trio with guitarists Slava Grigoryan and Wolfgang Muthspiel. 2017's My Foolish Heart realized his career long ambition to record it solo. 2023's At First Light offered originals, showtunes, and a traditional song. Towner was born in Chehalis, Washington. His mother was a piano teacher and his father a trumpet player. Towner and his siblings were raised in an environment that encouraged free musical experimentation and expression. As a child, he began playing piano at three, and picked up the trumpet at five. In 1958, he enrolled in the University of Oregon as an art major, but later changed his major to composition while studying classical piano too. At university he met bassist Glenn Moore, who would later become his musical partner in Oregon. While in school Towner discovered pianist Bill Evans' early work. Deeply under the spell of the pianist and composer, he began to emulate and incorporate the influence into his own piano style and composition. It was not until he was 22, that Towner, on an impulse, bought a classical guitar and became so entranced with it, he emigrated to Vienna for a time to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit. A few years later he played with classical chamber groups. Towner moved to New York in 1968 and immersed himself in the burgeoning jazz scene. He got work playing with Jimmy Garrison and Jeremy Steig before winning a spot in the Paul Winter's Winter Consort (1970-1971). His bandmates included Moore, Collin Walcott, and Paul McCandless. In late 1971 they left to form Oregon, but not until Winter gifted Towner his first 12-string guitar. The Oregon quartet developed a rich musical language, and all members composed. They incorporated jazz, classical, free improvisation and various global folk traditions. Also in 1971, Towner was enlisted to play on Wayne Shorter's "The Moors," one Weather Report's classic second album, I Sing The Body Electric. Oregon signed to Vanguard Records and issued its pioneering debut album, Music of Another Present Era in 1972. It was nominated for a Grammy in 1973. That year Towner met Manfred Eicher, producer and label boss with ECM. He signed the guitarist and released his debut album, Trios / Solos with Moore and Walcott; ECM has been his primary label home for more than half a century. He and Gary Burton began jamming together between 1974 and 1975. Though the guitarist's sophomore Diary (1974) was recorded solo -- he borrowed Bill Evans' overdubbing technique employed on thee pianist's Conversations With Myself -- he and Burton issued the acclaimed duo offering Matchbook in 1975. That same year Towner released one of his bestselling albums. Solstice was recorded in December of 1974 with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Eberhard Weber and drummer Jon Christensen. It sold well among college students (as did most ECM titles at the time) and European fans. Since its release, many critics and fans have claimed it is the album to first define the "ECM Sound." In addition to an active solo career, Towner was quite occupied with Oregon. They recorded an album a year between 1972-1983and toured regularly. In 1976, Towner issued the acclaimed Sargasso Sea, another duet offering, this one with guitarist John Abercrombie. In 1977, Towner and the Garbarek, Christensen, Weber quartet released the followup Solstice/Sound and Shadows. In 1978, Towner realized a dream when he released Batik with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette -- the rhythm section played in Evans' trio during the late 1960s. The guitarist changed up his minimal recording aesthetic with 1979's Old Friends, New Friends. In addition to Gomez, he added cellist David Darling and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler to the lineup, and replaced DeJohnette with drummer/percussionist Michael DiPasqua. Further, in addition to guitars and piano, Towner played French Horn on the record. Solo Concert appeared in 1980, and in 1981, again with Abercrombie, he issued the sequel, Five Years Later. In the early 1980s, Towner moved away from his bare-bones approach. He began to integrate the Prophet 5 keyboard synthesizer into both compositions and performances with and without Oregon. The Prophet 5 afforded an entirely new dimension for his writing, and established a brazen and quirky character in Oregon's notorious "free-form" improvisations. His first solo album to employ the technology was 1983's celebrated Blue Sun. While touring in Germany in 1984, Oregon's bus was involved in a serious accident. Walcott and manager Jo Härting were killed. 1985's Crossing was the last album to feature the multi-instrumentalist. That year also saw the release of Slide Show, a second duo offering from Towner and Burton. When they returned with 1987's Ecotopia, Trilok Gurtu assumed Walcott's role, but left after 1991's Always, Never, And Forever, leaving Oregon to record and perform as a trio for the next six years. In 1988, Towner issued the quintet offering City of Eyes. One of his most exploratory, improvisatory albums, its lineup included Oregon's McCandless, Peacock on bass, Jerry Granelli (playing organic and electronic drums) and trumpeter / flugelhornist Markus Stockhausen. He followed with Open Letter in 1992. Recorded in duo with drummer/percussionist Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Steps Ahead), it marked the first time one of his recordings had met with mixed reviews. Of its eleven selections, Towner wrote eight, co-wrote "Infection" with Erskine, and offered two jazz standards including Evans' "Waltz For Debby." The following year, Towner and his wife emigrated to Italy where he continues to live. The guitarist joined bassist Arild Andersen and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos on the bassist's If You Look Far Enough, and in 1994 recorded Oracle with Peacock. That year Towner also joined pianist Marc Copland for Songs Without End on the Japanese Tokuma label. In 1996, he issued the trio date Lost And Found, with Christensen and bassist Marc Johnson. 1997's Ana was split between pieces for solo nylon string guitar and the second half suite, Seven Pieces For Twelve Strings. That same year he and bassist Gomez joined drummer Bill Bruford's (Yes, King Crimson, U.K.) for the globally acclaimed acoustic trio date, If Summer Had Its Ghosts. Veteran multi-instrumentalist Mark Walker joined Oregon in 1997, in time to contribute to the year's Northwest Passage, but integrated fully on 1998's Music For A Midsummer Night's Dream. He helped expand the band's tonal, harmonic, dynamic, and textural reach on 2000's bestselling Oregon In Moscow with The Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. the album was nominated for four Grammy awards. Towner's final headline date of the 20th century was A Closer View in duo with Peacock in 1998. His creativity and virtuosity in the new millennium retained the vitality of his younger years. He released Anthem in 2001. Recorded exclusively on guitars, the 16 track set included covers of Charles Mingus's "Goodbye, Pork-Pie Hat," and Scott LaFaro's "Gloria's Step," surrounded by originals that included two short, multi-part interlude suites. It sold better than any of his leader albums from the previous decade. In 2005, Towner, Granelli and guitarist Robben Ford appeared on Helium Tears, a Charlie Haden session recorded in 1988. The following year, the guitarist's Time Line, a collection of originals and standards performed solo, was released by ECM. It was his first solo release to charm, peaking at number 15 on the Traditional Jazz Albums, and #22 on the Jazz Albums charts. While on tour in 2003 with guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, Towner encountered Kazakhstanian classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, who suggested a trio collaboration. Towner assembled a tour for them in 2005, that presented each man as a soloist, as well as in duets, and trios. They began to tour together as a "band" whenever time would permit. The trio and Oregon took up much of Towner's time, leaving him unable to record on his own. In 2007, Oregon received a Grammy nod for 2006's 1000 Kilometers on CAM Jazz. The following year, Towner and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu issued the duet offering, Chiaroscuro on ECM. It peaked at #12 on Traditional Jazz Albums and at #15 at Jazz Albums. That year also saw Towner record the album From A Dream with Grigoryan and Muthspiel for the latter's Material label as "MGT." It was released in 2009. Four years later, Towner brought the trio to ECM and issued Travel Guide. It too charted, peaking at #11 on Traditional Jazz Albums and at #16 on Jazz Albums lists. The same year, Oregon released Family Tree on CAM Jazz. In 2016, Towner joined Argentine saxophonist Javier Girotto and the ensemble Aires Tango for the remarkable Duende on CAM Jazz and returned to ECM in 2017 for My Foolish Heart. His first solo album in a decade, it balanced jazz and classical musics, in a similar manner to Evans, its obvious Muse. The album's title track, though composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, was recorded by Evans' iconic trio with LaFaro and Paul Motian. His highest charting album to date, it peaked at number three on the Jazz Albums chart, and at two on Traditional Jazz Albums, and placed on numerous streaming charts. In March 2023, just a few weeks after Towner turned 83, he released At First Light on ECM. It marked his 50th anniversary of solo recording. In addition to eight originals, he also recorded versions of the Irish nugget "Danny Boy," Hoagy Carmichael's Little Old Lady," and Jules Styne's "Make Someone Happy."
© Thom Jurek /TiVo


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