|On many instrumental recordings, the instruments themselves are hard to escape. The stunning trumpet technique of early Wynton Marsalis releases, the torrent of notes pouring from Joe Satriani's guitar, Glen Gould's incredibly expressive piano. I don't mean this to be an indictment of technique. The point is that Black Codes From The Underground, Surfing With The Alien, and The Goldberg Variations are pretty clearly trumpet, electric guitar and piano albums.
Ralph Towner, whether playing in an ensemble (Oregon) or duo (many examples here, including works with Gary Burton, Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, and Jan Garbarek) seems to employ the multi-timbral capabilities of the acoustic guitar to great effect. Even though Towner has prodigious chops, he leans toward finding the absolutely right notes to play. In a group populated by several musicians, that might not seem like such a feat. I mean, isn't that what musicians are born to do?
Solo recordings are another story. Can the artist push the composition out into the light? Far enough to make the listener forget about the instrument involved?
On Time Line, Towner does exactly that. Recorded in the Church of St. Gerold (a monastery in the Austrian mountains), Towner's guitar takes a back seat to the musical constructions. Beginning with "The Pendant" (and recalling Bill Evans' "Waltz For Debby"), it becomes apparent that the chords, melodies, basslines, and counter-melodies are all part of the orchestra that Towner hears in his head. The guitar might be delivering the message, but the resultant composition is what you'll remember.
Other highlights include: "The Hollows" which, with its shifting, repeated motifs, evokes some sort of journey. "The Lizards of Eraclea", a short piece that sure enough does bring scurrying lizards to mind. The improvisational vignettes of "Five Glimpses". Towner also reworks a few classics with Bill Evans' "My Man's Gone Now" (performed on 12-string) and Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine." One more highlight: the sound. I'm a pretty big fan of the ECM/Manfred Eicher sound but this recording, captured live in that church, gets a more natural version of the ECM reverb that we usually hear. There's a little more 'air' between the notes. It works.
Because of all of the great music I've heard Ralph Towner play (my favorite goes all the way back to 1973 with The Paul Winter Consort's Icarus), I'm sometimes surprised that the well hasn't run dry. That's not my usual line of reasoning and, given the fantastic musical ideas on this disc, it's probably one I won't waste my time on in the future.
Yes, this is an album presented with an acoustic guitar, but the guitar is not the point.