American guitarist Ralph Towner headlines the upcoming weekend at Triskel of artists from the acclaimed ECM label, writes Philip Watson
RALPH TOWNER is a master American guitarist and musical polyglot whose highly original playing and compositions effortlessly embrace jazz, classical, Brazilian, folk and world music.
Over a remarkable career lasting half a century or more, 76-year-old Towner has combined classical training and a virtuoso technique with a love of strong melodies, dynamic rhythms, stirring improvisation — and a beautifully lyrical and luminous tone on his acoustic six- and 12-string guitars. He is jazz and contemporary music’s Julian Bream; a player of prodigious talent, range and vision.
That Towner has only played once before in Ireland — at Dublin’s Vicar Street in 2001 — as part of a trio, and that his captivating solo concerts have become increasingly rare, makes his upcoming visit to Cork’s Triskel Christchurch just that little bit more special.
The centrepiece of Triskel’s second annual ECM Weekend, a celebration of the admired German independent record label and some of its musicians, Towner’s solo concert will feature him playing mostly his own wonderfully unclassifiable compositions, and the occasional jazz standard, on classical guitar.
“The classical guitar has a long tradition as a particularly great solo instrument, and I certainly started as a classical guitarist with a classical technique,” says Towner, on the phone from Rome; he is married to an Italian actress and writer and has lived in Italy for the past 23 years.
“But I have always been a jazz piano player as well, and the two have kind of blended together. My approach to the guitar is that I relate it to the keyboard, to the idea that it has many different independent parts and voices. I like to think of the piano, and the guitar, as a small orchestra.”
Towner began his career as a classically trained pianist and composer, only discovering a passion for the classical guitar when he was 22. Periods of formal classical guitar study, informal jazz piano playing, and the heady influence of Brazilian music in particular, led Towner in 1970 to co-found pioneering acoustic jazz ensemble Oregon. It is a group that set out to explore, fuse and transcend genres, and that Towner still plays an integral part of to this day.
It was shortly after Towner began to find acclaim with Oregon that he began another career-long relationship with ECM. Launched in Munich in 1969 by a 26-year-old jazz and classical bass player named Manfred Eicher, ECM quickly established itself as a paragon of uncompromising quality — and a certain cool northern European restraint. Album covers eschewed explanatory notes and mostly featured black-and-white photography or minimalist artwork; detractors, of course, saw something similarly sober in the music.
Yet it was a dedication to recording and aesthetic excellence that soon attracted American and European jazz musicians, some of whom became the most revered players of their generation: Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and famously Keith Jarrett, whose lauded 1975 live solo album on ECM, The Köln Concert, has sold more than 3.5 million copies.
“It’s amazing really: almost my entire career has been documented on one label — and all the music is still available,” says Towner. “For that alone ECM is something absolutely unique and unheard of.”
Branching out increasingly into world and early music, and the contemporary classical work of composers such as Steve Reich, John Adams and Arvo Pärt, ECM has released more than 1,500 albums, across and beyond many musical forms.
It is that breadth of approach and appeal that the Triskel plans to capture during its ECM Weekend. This year’s concerts also include a fascinating duo between German cellist Anja Lechner and French pianist François Couturier, and a piano trio led by Polish jazz star Marcin Wasilewski. There will also be films featuring music by ECM artists.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Towner also expresses an interest in Irish music.
“Irish music is very emotional for me somehow,” he explains. “The ballads I’ve heard are very moving; there’s a tremendous melancholy, even in the faster pieces; and there’s this sense of great beauty I think.
“Those are qualities I very much strive for. It’s not about technique; it’s about trying to tell a musical story that transports you — about playing music that is trying to reach something rather than prove something.”
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