Maestro Towner in his very own words:
Each time I plant myself on stage before an audience, I proceed from the first sound to attempt to develop a musical continuity that will draw the listener into a world populated with a cast of sonic characters playing out an existence replete with all the emotions that could be suggested in a play or any work of literature.
Before a concert I choose from a list of pieces that I have composed, each of which has a unique quality that establishes a particular atmosphere that I can develop further with improvisation. I always begin with an improvised introduction to a composition, feeling out the sound of the room and the energy in the audience. An advantage of being an improvising soloist is that you are free to alter, or depart from, the form of a piece at any point if you sense that the 'story' needs a turn of events. In this respect, I consider myself as part of the audience, and if all is going well, I am swept along with everyone as to the shape and course the music takes.
Music, in my opinion, is a social art that combines the energies and contributions of multiple musicians and listeners. Being a soloist seems antithetical to this notion, but I feel the cultivation and imaginative use of a broad variety of musical colours and techniques invest the music with an orchestral aura that transcends the audience's perception that it is being produced by a single player. Once the music has begun, it ceases to be a matter of how many are playing and what instruments are being played, and becomes rather a passage into a world of infinite sounds that are completely personal to each listener. The less self-conscious the audience and performer become, the better the concert. The most drastic difference for the solo player is that at the conclusion of the concert, the pleasure of discussing the concert you just played with the other musicians in the group isn't possible. It is ironic that much of my sense of musical interaction in a solo piece has been cultivated by playing in group situations.
So far I haven't felt any loss of fascination for the art of music. The guitar, for me, has always been an instrument with a bottomless reservoir of musical colours and possibilities. It continues to be a passport into a wondrous realm, and I am grateful for this.'
Broadly speaking, in diverse acts of making music, innovation is no easy feat. It not only requires an innate talent, but also a devotion to the art that is irreducible to simple commercial exchange. Ralph Towner is such an innovator on the modern musical landscape: his ideas are ever fresh, even as his legacy spans a career of nearly fifty years.
Best known as the lead composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for the acoustic jazz ensemble Oregon, Towner has also had a rich and varied solo career that has seen fruitful and memorable musical collaboration with such great modern musicians as Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Larry Coryell, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Wheeler, Marc Copland, and Weather Report—the pivotal band of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Regarded by many critics as the greatest living exponent of the classical guitar and also 12-string guitar in jazz, Towner has been in demand on the most prominent stages of London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Milan, New York, Buenos Aires, and beyond.
Towner was born in Chehalis, Washington, into a musical family—his mother was a piano teacher and his father was a trumpet player. He and his siblings were raised in a nurturing and empowering environment that encouraged free musical experimentation and expression. In 1958, Towner enrolled in the University of Oregon as an art major, later changing his major to composition. He soon thereafter met bassist Glen Moore, who would become a lifelong musical partner in the band Oregon.
It was about this time that Towner discovered the early records (LPs) of Bill Evans, whom Towner emulated and whose influence he began to incorporate into his own piano style and composition. Soon after, Towner bought a classical guitar, and in the early 1960s he traveled to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit. In 1968, Towner moved to New York City and immersed himself in the New York jazz scene. He eventually landed a position with the Paul Winter Consort where the friendships and musical partnering with Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, and Collin Walcott were forged, a musical chemistry that ultimately alchemized into the band Oregon. Paul Winter also gifted Towner his first 12-string guitar. Towner has since coaxed the 12-string into imbuing his work with such a characteristic uniqueness that most jazz fans—if given the two keywords "12-string" and "jazz"—may immediately recall Ralph Towner’s name.
Most instrumentalists in jazz play one standard “classical” form of an instrument, but jazz guitarists have tended to perform on either the acoustic “Maccaferri-styled” steel-string guitar made famous by jazz great Django Reinhardt, or more commonly the emerging archtop acoustic-electric guitar first played by the likes of Charlie Christian and those who followed. By the 1960’s, the modern electric solid body guitar became most commonly used. Towner instead chose the classical guitar as his primary instrument, an instrument largely associated with solo and chamber music repertoire.
Following the traditions of the classical guitar, he began to play in small chamber groups and as a soloist, albeit as an improviser. It could be said that in his formative years, Towner’s personal approach to playing the guitar was essentially the merging of an artistic ideal set by master classical guitarist Julian Bream, who influenced Towner greatly for his sound, approach to repertoire, and use of varied articulation. On the other side of Towner’s spectrum of pedagogy was the aforementioned pianist Bill Evans, the master jazz musician who was a great influence in the music and playing of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett and a generation of jazz pianists to follow.
Towner’s working relationship with producer Manfred Eicher of ECM Records began in 1972: their collaboration provided a forum for Towner’s growth as a leader and collaborator with other jazz giants, all while concomitantly breaking open musical frontiers with Oregon throughout the intervening years. ECM’s roster of low-volume acoustic acts were decidedly contrary to the amplified popular zeitgeist of the era, and provided Towner an opportunity to connect and create with some of the most iconoclastic and innovative artists in the 1970s. Towner’s early ECM years also saw his most minimalist, yet most bold, endeavor.
His album “Solo Concert,” released in 1980 on ECM, was conceptually elemental and essentially a solo live guitar recital. Yet no one to date had ever synthesized classical contrapuntal composition with improvisational and oddly-metered jazz like this before, especially in such a risky arena as a live performance. Like his contemporaries Jarrett and Corea, who also explored the format of the solo jazz concert and recording, Towner's engagement of a kind of musical cosmopolitanism of jazz and classical music aesthetic set the stage for a new musical approach, one where jazz improvisation met the complexities of harmony and counterpoint in the modernism of composed music. Such solo work would later become Towner’s signature on recordings such as "Ana" and "Anthem," or augmented by Gary Peacock’s bass on "Oracle" and "A Closer View."
Like a quintessential artist, however, experimentation with technology was simultaneously and paradoxically leading Towner away from this bare-bones approach to composition and performance. In 1983, he began to incorporate the Prophet 5 keyboard synthesizer into his compositions, both with Oregon and his ECM recordings, notably "Blue Sun." The Prophet 5 synthesizer afforded an entirely new dimension to Towner’s compositional palette, as well as to the brazen and quirky character of the "free-form" improvisatory pieces for which Oregon had become infamous. Yet sadly, in 1984, percussionist Collin Walcott and manager Jo Härting were killed in Germany in a collision involving the group’s tour bus. Towner and McCandless escaped serious injury in the back of the vehicle. The emotional scars were deep, and it at first seemed doubtful that Walcott’s critical contribution to Oregon’s musical tapestry could be replaced. However, two subsequent world-class percussionists, gifted with rhythmic virtuosity, would eventually join the group: Trilok Gurtu in 1992 and Mark Walker in 1997.
The critical commentary at the turn of the millennium was that Oregon’s musical vision had ostensibly arrived upon the release of "Oregon in Moscow," an orchestral double-CD recorded with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, earning the ensemble four Grammy nominations.
Towner’s celebrated 29th ECM Records release, “My Foolish Heart,” marks a historic point for both himself and for ECM, as Towner was one of the label's first artists. Within the generation of guitarists with whom Towner is most closely associated, his output and individuated musical approach - whether performing solo, duo, with the Solstice [winner of the prestigious Deutscher Schallplattenpreis] and Sounds and Shadows band of Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, Jon Christensen, or with Oregon - has set him apart as one of the most widely respected and listenable composers and guitarists of artistic weight.