Born in 1940 in Chehalis, Washington. Education: Studied composition and music theory at the University of Oregon; studied guitar under Karl Scheit in Vienna, Austria. Addresses: Record company--ECM records/BMG Classics, 1540 Broadway, 40th floor, New York, NY 10036. Website-- www.ecmrecords.com/ecm/artists/20.html.
Classically oriented guitarist and composer Ralph Towner is known primarily for his work with the group Oregon as well as his releases with musicians John Abercrombie and Gary Burton. Towner's compositions, performed on classical and 12-string guitars, range from Baroque-sounding and serene to edgily contemporary and tonally textured. Towner's releases are markedby both brightly rhythmic and thoughtful, ruminative pieces. Don Heckman of the L.A. Times, in discussing Towner's 1997 release, Solo Guitar, added, "Towner is also a talented melodist ... On the seven works devised for the 12-string instrument, he exploits its myriad potential for unusual combinations of sound and texture."
Towner was born into a musical family in 1940 in Chehalis, Washington. He was able to improvise on the piano at the age of three, and he started trumpet lessons at the age of five. He spent his childhood mastering piano and trumpet but didn't take up guitar until he studied composition and music theory at the University of Oregon. After teaching himself the fundamentals of guitar, he began to compose for the instrument and eventually studied guitar under Karl Scheit in Vienna. He intended to use the piano as his vehicle for improvisational compositions and use the acoustic guitar for classical recitals, but a brief foray into Brazilian music shifted his priorities over to the guitar. Towner first played jazz in New York City in the late 1960s as a pianist and he was strongly influenced by legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans. By the early 1970s he was improvising on classical and 12-string guitars.
Towner didn't have guitar players as role models for his unique style of guitar improvisation. The influence of Bill Evans was channeled through the medium of guitar instead of piano, and Towner played the guitar in a "pianistic" manner, almost transcending the instrument in a way that makes it sound like a small orchestra. Towner formed alliances with musicians who worked with Bill Evans over the years, including flautist Jeremy Steig, bassists Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson, and Gary Peacock, and lauded drummer Jack DeJohnette. Towner felt there was an orchestral way of expressing himself musically on a small instrument and the classical guitar seemed the ideal instrument for implying a lot by using very little. Towner's approach to his acoustic instruments has served as an influential model for a generation of guitarists, yet he retains his distinctly original style and sound. DownBeat's Dan Ouellette wrote of Towner, "...The master guitarist displays impeccable technique, compositional brilliance and evocative improvisation...whether Towner is being thoughtful or passionate,he consistently surprises."
Towner recorded his first album, Trios/Solos, on ECM Records in 1973 with Glen Moore, followed by Diary in 1974. He released Matchbook with Gary Burton in 1975, and Sargasso Sea with John Abercrombie in 1976. After forming the popular group Solstice in the mid-1970s, he released Solstice and Sound and Shadows in 1977. He was also featured with Jan Garbarek on Dis in 1977. Towner put out three albums the following year: Batik, Sol Do Meio Dia with Egberto Gismonti, and Deer Wan with Kenny Wheeler. In 1979, he releasedOld Friends, New Friends, and Works and in 1980 he released Solo Concert.
Towner continued to record, experiment, and grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983 he released the album Blue Sun and, with the newly formed band Oregon. In 1985 Oregon released Crossing. A year later, Towner recorded Slide Show with Gary Burton, followed by Ecotopia with Oregon in 1987. He released City of Eyes in 1989 and Open Letter in 1992. With Arild Anderson, he recorded If You Look Far Enough in 1993, followed by two releases the following year: Azimuth/The Touchstone/Depart with Azimuth, and Oracle with Gary Peacock. Towner released Lost and Found in 1996, followed by Ana and Selected Signs 1 in 1997, and A Closer View in 1998.
Lost and Found featured an acoustic guitar, saxophone, bass, and drums assembly reminiscent of Towner's work with Solstice in the 1970s, and marked the first time Towner recorded with drummer Jon Christensen since that era. They were joined with double-bass player Marc Johnson of the Abercrombie Trio, and multi-reeds player Denney Goodhew of First Avenue. Towner shared composer credits with Johnson and Goodhew on the release and revisited his 1973 composition "Mon Enfant" from Diary. Lost and Found was an important release because it juxtaposed solo and duet performances with ensemble pieces--as well as improvisations with structured tunes--and summarized many of Towner's primary aims as a guitarist. Towner alluded to much of his previous musical history in Lost and Found, a history spanning 24 years.
Following the release of Ana, Ouelette wrote, "The first six tracks find Towner successfully blurring the distinctions between classical and jazz.... Towner sounds like he's playing the thumbpiano one moment, then fingerpicks with percussive glee and slaps at the slacked bass strings to create a gritty blues effect.... Ana is a highly recommended guitar delight." Towner is difficult to pigeonhole, as are most original artists, because his compositions are given wide berth. Some of his pieces are simple and ethereal, others are stark and impressionistic, some are flavored with salsa and rollicking guitar riffs, some are serene and reminiscent of the harpsichord, and others are gaily spirited and exclamatory. Neither classical in approach nor traditionally jazz, Towner's compositions are atmospheric, experimental, and uniquely from his own dignified language.
Towner uses unusual tunings: with 12-string guitars, it is possible to tune to many different pitches beside the octaves and unisons. When playing with a classical technique, Towner is able to utilize explosive unison chords that sound larger than life without being rolled or strummed. He then achieves percussive sounds as well as a keyboard sound. This keyboard-like component of the 12- string guitar melds well with Towner's masterful knowledge of piano and sometimes renders his sound harpsichordal in nature; the effect is serene and thoughtful and far more flexible than a traditional guitar approach. Towner achieved his personal goal of fusing piano with guitar and made a distinctive mark on the musical landscape with his original compositions.
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Ralph Towner's Career
Learned to improvise on the piano at the age of three; started trumpet lessons at the age of five; didn't take up guitar until attending the University of Oregon; first played jazz in New York City in the late 1960s as a pianist and was strongly influenced by Bill Evans; began improvising on classical and 12-string guitars in the late 1960s/early 1970s; formed alliances with musicians who worked with Bill Evans, including flautist Jeremy Steig, bassists Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson, and Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette; released Trios/Solos in 1973 with Glen Moore, Diary in 1974; formed Solstice in the mid- 1970s; formed Oregon in 1983; released Ana and Selected Signs 1 in 1997; released A Closer View in 1998.
- Selective Works
- On ECM records (With Glen Moore) Trios/Solos, 1973.
- Diary, 1974.
- (With Gary Burton)Matchbook, 1975.
- (With John Abercrombie)Sargasso Sea, 1976.
- Solstice, 1977.
- Sound and Shadows, 1977.
- (With Jan Garbarek) Dis, 1977.
- Batik, 1978.
- (With Egberto Gismonti) Sol Do Meio Dia, 1978.
- (With Kenny Wheeler) Deer Wan, 1978.
- Old Friends, New Friends, 1979.
- Works, 1979.
- Solo Concert, 1980.
- Blue Sun, 1983.
- (With Oregon) Oregon, 1983.
- Crossing, 1985.
- Slide Show, 1986.
- (With Oregon) Ecotopia, 1987.
- City of Eyes, 1989.
- Open Letter, 1992.
- (With Arild Anderson) If You Look Far Enough, 1993.
- (With Azimuth) Azimuth/The Touchstone/Depart, 1994.
- (With Gary Peacock) Oracle, 1994.
- Lost and Found, 1996.
- Ana, 1997.
- Selected Signs 1, 1997.
- Solo Guitar, 1997.
- A Closer View, 1998.
- Crusader News, July 10, 1997.
- Down Beat, July 1997.
- Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1997.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from ECM Records and online at http://www.ecmrecords.com/ecm/artists/20.html.