Ralph Towner

Fifty Years and Counting
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner: Caterina Di Perri/ECM Records.

As a young musician, Ralph Towner wrote “Icarus,” a revolutionary jazz piece that became a crossover hit for the Paul Winter Consort. Later, the classically trained guitarist (also a fine pianist and horn player) found his way to ECM records and, for more than 50 years, has released music of introspective guitar artistry, as well as playing in the groundbreaking group Oregon.

Towner’s newest ECM effort is At First Light – which finds the 83-year-old playing better than ever.

One feeling that comes through the new album is optimism, like “Make Someone Happy” and “Little Old Lady.” Were you aiming for a theme?
I noticed that these older tunes are an example of how one collects certain music in a lifetime that was shaped by them.

Your music flows so naturally it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s composed or improvised. Tell us about the process of invention.
Generally, I compose the theme and notate it quite accurately. Then I improvise on the harmonic and melodic content in a manner, hopefully, that continues the atmosphere and direction of the written material. Over the years, I kept adapting each song in my own way; I abstracted them and modified them until the sources were no longer recognizable. Almost without noticing, I’d arrived in an idiom of my own.

Sixty-five years ago, you were a student of classical guitar. Who were you listening to?
I first heard a classical guitarist when I was graduating from university in music composition. I decided to put my self-taught jazz piano playing on hold and study guitar with a master in the Vienna music academy. I eventually listened to [guitarist/lutist] Julian Bream for stylistic inspiration. I found that the guitar was a very pianistic instrument, capable of sophisticated polyphony and myriad tone colors. My studies involved quite a bit of Renaissance and baroque music, which played a big part in shaping my writing and performance techniques.

How did you make the leap to jazz improvisation – and who are your inspirations?
I started improvising on the trumpet when I was eight years old and had access to recordings of various jazz and classical musicians. At that time, in the late ’40s, I began to hear great swing and Dixieland trumpet players, and progressed by imitation. My solo recordings have always included my own compositions in which there are trace elements of the composers and musicians that have attracted me over the years – George Gershwin, John Coltrane, John Dowland, and Bill Evans, to name a few. The blend of keyboard and guitar techniques is an important aspect of my playing and composition, and I feel this album is a good example of shaping this expanse of influences into my personal music.

Strings are critical to players of nylon-string guitars. What kind do you use?
Not much change in strings – I’ve stayed with D’Addario for years.

Your music has been so inspirational. For example, one can’t listen to the Pat Metheny Group without thinking about the impact of Oregon on that band. You essentially opened the door to a new kind of atmospheric jazz. Any thoughts on that legacy?
The beginning of my New York City years, starting in 1968, was a rich period to be writing and playing new pieces with musicians who had migrated from all over the world. New bands were forming like Weather Report, Miles Davis’ sextet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to name a few. Oregon came together in the West Village and combined compatible instruments like acoustic 12-string and classical guitars, Indian tabla, oboe, and double bass. We used odd meters, different harmonies and free improvisation.

What’s behind your half-century association with the ECM label?
I made my first recording for ECM in ’72 and felt very fortunate to have forged a friendship with [producer] Manfred Eicher. It’s a rarity for an artist to remain with the same recording company for an entire career, and I am grateful to be one of them. Manfred’s approach produces an atmosphere in the studio that’s almost reverent, with very little talk, few takes, and nearly always recording in one to two days. This results in very spontaneous performances.

You’re in your 80s, an age when many musicians are retired. What inspired you to record At First Light?
It was the joy of playing a new collection of my own and other composers’ pieces. I practice every day to combat the stiffness that comes with age, and ramp up my hours at least two weeks in advance of the recording.

Classical-guitar icon Andrés Segovia performed into his later 80s. Do you plan to keep going as long as the music is there?
I’ll keep on playing as long as I can!

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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