It’s been 50 years since Ralph Towner’s first album solely under his name, Diary, came out on producer Manfred Eicher’s groundbreaking ECM Records label. Towner had already been recognized as a great up-and-coming player for his work in the Paul Winter Consort and the remarkably eclectic quartet Oregon, both of whom could be labeled chamber jazz groups that also played “world music” before that label existed. Diary, however, was all Towner, playing 12-string acoustic and nylon-string classical guitar, piano, and gong(!) on a wide-ranging set of pieces that found him sometimes performing solo, other times layering in another instrumental voice, effectively duetting with himself. The music was moody, exploratory, often lyrical, occasionally dissonant—and always interesting.
Towner is usually classified as a jazz player and composer, but to me that feels limiting (even as “jazz” has become so all-encompassing). Yes, he cites John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and many other jazz greats as seminal influences. Yes, he has played and recorded with Charlie Haden, Larry Coryell, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, John Abercrombie, Paul McCandless, Gary Peacock, Wayne Shorter, and so many other jazz masters. And yes, he has always been devoted to improvisation and using harmonies often found in jazz. But that label disregards such myriad inspirations as Brazilian, Indian, modern classical, folk, and popular tunes from the Great American Songbook, as well as the fact that his guitar style has been hugely informed by classical-guitar technique.
At 83, the hugely prolific Towner—25 or so albums as a leader, another 30 with Oregon, and many more where he has appeared as a guest player—is still writing and recording vital, involving pieces that draw on his lifetime of musical passions and influences. His latest ECM release, his first since the excellent My Foolish Heart in 2017, is called At First Light, and it was recorded using only solo classical guitar—no 12-string this time out (nor keyboards or trumpet or any other instruments on which he is fluent). The album has achingly beautiful melodic moments, intriguing rhythmic turns, passages that seem to float into the ether, pieces that feel like they tell a wordless story, and others that maybe ask a question: in other words, typical Ralph Towner.
Towner has lived in Rome, Italy, for many years, and in an email interview, he shared thoughts on his latest project and his process of composing and arranging for guitar.
Searching for Songs
Most of the tracks on At First Light are original compositions, including a stripped-down version of the spirited early-’90s Oregon tune “Guitarra Picante” (see transcription in this issue) and an extended extrapolation on “Ubi Sunt” from My Foolish Heart. As has often been the case on his solo records, there are also a couple of imaginative interpretations of standards—Hoagy Carmichael’s “Little Old Lady” and Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy”—plus the traditional Irish tune “Danny Boy.”
“Each standard attracted me at some time,” he said when I asked about his approach to the songs he pulled apart and reworked. “I try to make them sound comfortable on the classical guitar, along with reharmonizations that set the melodies in relief.”
As for his own new originals on the album, Towner noted, “The songs were composed or arranged at separate times during the few years that preceded the recording.” His pieces usually evolve from improvisations that he writes down as they take form. “I listen to myself,” he said, “and differentiate between what is a catalyst for a composition and what is a random collection of sounds.”
In a 2017 interview from Anil Prasad’s book Innerviews: Music Without Borders, Towner expanded on his writing methodology: “It’s related to wanting to complete an idea. “I basically write by playing. If I discover something as I’m practicing on the instrument, I’ll want to pursue it further. I’ll discover the first few elements of it and then telescope it into a whole piece. I’m curious to see how the stories turn out. Writing is like reading for me. Similar to when I start a book, if the material reaches out and grabs me, I’m pulled along just like a reader is, wondering where the piece is going to go. In that way, I’m almost a member of the audience seeing how the piece will unfold. I’ve always been quite driven in the solo element. I’ve always wanted to ensure my work, particularly on the classical guitar, holds together and is fully realized.”
Towner noted in an ECM label interview that his own compositions include trace elements of composers and musicians that attract him, including George Gershwin, John Coltrane, Renaissance-era English lutenist John Dowland, and perhaps his biggest influence, jazz pianist Bill Evans. At First Light, Towner said, “is a good example of shaping this expanse of influences into my personal music.”
And as he added in our interview, “Upon hearing the rough mix of this album, I found that the songs all seemed to be mileposts in my life of music.”
A Pianist Who Plays Guitar
As befits a musician whose mother was a piano teacher and whose father was trumpeter, Towner was a skilled pianist and horn player long before he seriously took up the guitar. During his years at the University of Oregon, where he studied composition, Towner walked into a music store to buy “a trumpet mute or music paper, and there was a salesman-type there who sold me a classical guitar,” he recalled. “I taught myself a little bit and then wrote a composition for flute and guitar.”
Smitten with the guitar, he enrolled in the prestigious Vienna Academy to study classical guitar intensively with esteemed teacher and player Karl Scheit (sometimes called the “Segovia of Austria”) in 1963–64 and again in 1967–68. All through the ’60s, too, Towner was listening to Brazilian music that featured nylon-string guitar played by such notables at João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, and Baden Powell—much of which seeped into the American jazz world.
However, when Towner moved from Oregon to New York City following his second stint with Scheit, he found it easier to get gigs as a pianist than as a guitarist, so his evolution as primarilya guitarist happened gradually.
In 1970, a new wrinkle was added when Towner joined the Paul Winter Consort and Winter asked him to try playing 12-string guitar. Though it was quite a change from nylon-string acoustic, Towner mastered the instrument fairly quickly, and it became an important part of his arsenal for the rest of his career—especially once he and Consort bandmates Paul McCandless, Glen Moore, and Collin Walcott split to form the groundbreaking group Oregon. Just as Towner’s playing and composing for nylon-string is utterly unique, so too is his 12-string repertoire. Even so, he has often referred to himself as a piano player who plays guitar.
“Piano technique plays an important role in my guitar playing and composition in general,” he told me. “Julian Bream was a great example of a guitarist playing in a more pianistic style.”
Tools of His Trade
Towner has played a variety of classical guitars through the years, including a pair of Ramírez models from 1964 and 1972. Over the past three decades, however, his favored nylon-string guitars have been custom models. “The guitar I used on At First Light was built by Australian luthier Jim Redgate,” Towner says.
Redgate first made Towner a double-top guitar around 2010. (Fairly common in the classical guitar world, the double-top design employs two thin wooden soundboards sandwiching a very thin layer of honeycombed strengthening material such as the polymer Nomex, said to enhance the projection and flexibility of the top.)
After playing that double top for a few years, Towner wanted a traditional instrument similar to one Redgate had made for Australian classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan. (Towner made two exceptional trio albums with Grigoryan and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel as MGT—don’t miss their 2013 release Travel Guide.) Redgate says, “The one I made for Ralph that he uses now is a traditional fan-braced cedar top guitar with Honduras rosewood back and sides and a full French polish finish. He sold the double top and just has the traditional guitar now.”
Since 1995, Towner has also owned several classical guitars made by Portland, Oregon–based luthier Jeffrey Elliott, the first of which was a co-build with Elliott’s colleague Cyndy Burton made from European spruce and Indian rosewood. Towner described the Elliott/Burton guitar a few years ago as “old faithful; the most perfectly balanced guitar I’ve ever played.”
As for Towner’s 12-strings, they’ve all been Guilds, such as an F-212 that he played on the Weather Report track “The Moor” on that group’s first record. He also has a series of custom instruments from the Guild workshop, including a mahogany-bodied Florentine cutaway F-212 and an F-512, both with necks that more closely match the width of his classical guitars.
Towner doesn’t travel as much as he once did, but his playing schedule is still sprinkled with occasional gigs in various European cities (which are easily accessible since he’s based in Rome), and in April 2023 he even played in Shanghai. In recent years, he’s recorded his ECM albums with Manfred Eicher at a studio in nearby Lugano, Switzerland—usually in just a couple of days of live tracking, as they have done for the last 50 years. Hey, if it ain’t broke…
“I still play every day,” Towner says when I ask whether he’s made adjustments to his practice regimen as he’s gotten older. “I have a few exercises that wake up my hands, but I find it better to immediately play music, as it deals directly with the refinements in muscular control necessary to produce the tone and dynamics needed. Then, a week before a concert I usually start working with pieces I intend to perform.”
He’s also still writing all the time—sitting down with a guitar or at a piano keyboard and improvising, or retrieving fragments of ideas from his extremely fertile mind, perhaps remembering and reworking some riff or passage from one his hundreds of compositions, or the thousands of others he has played; shaping them slowly but surely into something brand new. Because that’s what he does.
I concluded our interview by asking Towner if he listens much to his older music and what he thinks when he hears it. His answer was typically self-effacing: “I am listening more often to music I previously recorded and am often surprised at how well-played those albums were.” No surprise here. That’s what the rest of us—the fans—have thought all along.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.