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Lost on the shelves: Ralph Towner – Solstice

January 6, 2018

I first discovered Ralph Towner as the acoustic guitarist in the band Oregon in 1978. Oregon’s 1978 album Out Of The Woods, on Elektra, was a small sensation in the jazz world at the time. Their genre was impossible to pin down: jazz, folk, classical, chamber music, world music, etc.  It was New Age music before that was really a genre (or an insult). Listening to it today, it sounds timeless.

Over the years I picked up a few Ralph Towner albums (solo and side projects). I knew that Solstice (1975) was his solo crowning achievement, but never managed to pick it up until a CD was reissued in 2008. I enjoyed that reissue for a short bit, but it never managed to speak to my soul. I recently was cleaning out an LP shelf, that houses used records that I have acquired at record shows, that are waiting for a serious listen before filing. I discovered I had picked up a pristine vinyl copy of Solstice. It has been in my rotation the last several weeks and is has officially earned my appreciation.

The album is quintessentially ECM circa mid-70s. That is not to say it sounds dated or clichéd, but that it represents everything that makes ECM a great label: it is quiet yet adventurous and impeccably recorded. Lots of jazz labels have a distinctive style and ECM may be the most distinctive. Depending on your taste you will find it beautiful or boring. I am in the beautiful end of that spectrum. I am a huge ECM fan.

Towner is the principal composer on Solstice (7 of 8 of the tracks). He is also a soloist and accompanist playing 12 string guitar, classical guitar and piano. Towner defers plenty to Jan Garbarek (tenor and soprano sax and flute). Garbarek’s playing is fantastic. The great bassist Eberhard Webber gets plenty of action too (he also contributes some cello). The group is rounded out by drummer Jon Christensen, who provides a light but wonderfully hyperactive touch to the kit.

Towner’s soloing on Solstice is subtle and supportive of the ensemble. But if you listen carefully, you will be blown away by what he is doing with his ax.

The music is atmospheric, but by no means musical wallpaper. It demands your attention and has plenty of challenges despite its gentleness. It is the kind of album that you might be able to get away with as background music at a dinner party if you played it at low volume. But if you played it loud, its cinematic beauty would quickly overshadow dinner conversation.

Towner was clearly a big influence on one of my jazz heroes, Pat Metheny, both in his acoustic guitar playing and in his style as a composer. Metheny said this about Towner in a Downbeat Blindfold test:

“That’s unmistakably Ralph Towner, somebody I hold in high esteem for what I was talking about earlier, the ability to find your own voice on the instrument…I have been knocked out with Ralph ever since I Sing The Body Electric, which was his guitar debut on a Weather Report album years ago. The first time I heard that I was stunned. I’d never heard anybody play anything even remotely similar, let alone improvise with such freedom on a 12-string guitar, which is one of the most cumbersome instruments, very difficult to play. I’m always amazed at Ralph’s flexibility and the power he can get. He’s got incredible touch.”

Solstice is a grand rediscovery in my collection.

Based on Metheny’s tip, I pulled Weather Report’s I Sing The Body Electric off the shelf to give it a reminder listen. That is not an album that has previously resonated with me, but given context and being in a receptive mood, I now appreciate its beauty (and I am reminded that in the early 70s, Wayne Shorter was very much an active participant in the band). Towner’s playing on the second cut, “The Moors” is brilliant. Guitars have been rarely present on Weather Report albums and Towner is given rare guitar prominence on this cut. I see a connection with the ECM sound and Weather Report, that I have never noticed before.

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One Comment
  1. Don’t have this Towner but lots more ECM stuff. How cool is that to go back with new ears and dig an album anew. Good lesson for CB.

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