In my early twenties, I lived in a flat with my (much hipper) cousin David. The music that wafted from his room was an education in itself. To my Glam-rock gilded ears the exotic and alien sounds of jazz and Prog were always tantalising.
One of the most arresting breezes that came to me from David’s den was the 12-string guitar of Ralph Towner, then a member of the US group Oregon. It was jazz, yet it wasn’t; it was classical, yet it wasn’t.
What it was, was the ‘blues-less’ jazz that would grow hugely popular during that time and reach its perfect expression in the arty but very alluring releases put out by Manfred Eicher’s ECM label from Germany.
Towner’s 12-string only came out for one tune at the City Recital Hall on the shimmering tune “Beneath an Evening Sky” – the rest of the time he played classical guitar. With him, also on gut-string classical, was Australia’s Slava Grigoryan and the German jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who played a (surprisingly thin-bodied) electric jazz box. The trio was with us on Saturday, November 1 to promote their second album as a group, Travel Guide.
It was fitting that Towner, the elder statesman and spiritual father of the two younger players (indeed, to any guitarist who melds jazz, classical and Eastern music in their playing) sat in the middle, between the two. To his right, Muthspiel is a jazz player, to his left, Griogyan, one of the finest classical players Australia has produced. Towner in the middle was the perfect balance of the two – delicate and technically perfect yet not averse to letting jazz dissonances rub and coaxing ‘blue’ notes to turn purple under his fingers.
Yet it wasn’t as neat as that: jazzer Muthspiel has come from classical music and Grigoryan, a concert guitar virtuoso who is also a great improviser (his opener was an entirely improvised piece which segued seamlessly into his pearl-dropped reading of William Lovelady’s Incantation No. 6).
The concert program put every combination of the three up – trio, solo, duos (Towner and Slava/Towner and Muthspiel/Muthspiel and Grigoryan). The fleet unison and duo passages in Muthspiel and Grigoryan’s attack on the German’s “Nico and Mithra”– as well as some bristling blowing – got the biggest applause of the night. Flash always does impress.
But it was Towner who was the calmer centre and the deeper artist. His chops are still intact – technically he is still that fearless acoustic warrior who first thrilled me all those years ago in the band Oregon – and yet a 45-year career of always progressing, always searching, has made his artistry more breathtaking than ever. He quietly led the ensemble passages from within, leapt into the fray when it challenged, and held us all in his hand during the solo sections – his indigo tinged “The Prowler” was particularly suspending.
Yet despite the slightly crystal-fragile atmosphere of the City Recital Hall, it was not all po-faced acoustic delicacy. Jokes and laughs were shared among the three – Wolfgang Muthspiel in particular ran a good line in drollery. Jokingly suffering yet more fine guitar tuning from the two acoustic guitarists, he let us know that the new album has two CDs: one of music and a second disc only of tuning. (Boom tish).
The encore piece, “In Stride” from their debut album was a country-flavoured (albeit country via Keith Jarrett) workout that came as close to ‘rocking’ as anything on the night. Its sepia wildness and hoedown groove had us all humming the riff as we filed out – grinning and warm from music that is beautiful but more so because it is human.
Which has always been Ralph Towner’s gift to us.