Perfect Sound Forever

More Guitar Gawdz Than You Can Shake A Les Paul At
What's Guinness Got That We Ain't? Part V

Photo courtesy of Ted Kurland Associates

Segovia's Mutant Brother
RALPH TOWNER- Waltzing through Oregon
by Marc S. Tucker
(February 2007)

Into an interview with John Abercrombie, the name 'Ralph Towner' was injected and Abercrombie's reverent opinion was that the man's music should be "put in a special place in America." Exactly right. Much has been correctly made, in the classicalist realm, of Andres Segovia and his highly speculated-upon successor, but that individual was never really indicated. Julian Bream? Christopher Parkening? John Williams? It could've been any of a small handful, but none had the spark of genius nor were they as deserving of consideration as someone vastly removed from their demesnes: Ralph Towner. Unfortunately, though, recent years, which should have vindicated this assertion, have instead seen an inexplicable diminishment of the impeccable player's powers, a crushing blow to those who've long stood enraptured by a talent that first emerged in Paul Winter's old Consort.

Towner benefited from a nurture that encouraged art and freethinking, his parents being musicians and his birthplace - Chehalis, Washington - an area that respected culture. He went to the local college, met bassist Glen Moore, and formed a lifelong friendship that would flow into a musical group. A significant side-segment of musical history thus began in a simple bond. Towner was at the time a pianist, much influenced by Bill Evans. However, artists are mercurial and the impulse purchase of a classical guitar commenced the young man's true calling. Entranced from the moment he laid fingers to fretboard, Towner pursued music at the University of Oregon, thereafter debunking to Vienna, pursuing the instrument under Karl Scheit. In a return to the States, providentially to New York, he hooked up with the Paul Winter Consort and incubated Oregon from its membership: his buddy Moore, Colin Walcott, and Paul McCandless. Winter gave the guitarist his first 12-string, which Towner would soon turn into a trademark, and for which we fans have been forever grateful.

Winter's Consort was the perfect choice for the mellifluous gentleman. Along with a number of jazzers - Herbie Mann, Gabor Szabo, etc. - he favored quieter approaches to composition and improv, helping provide the milieu for the soon-to-be Oregon, a proto-ambience in which to work out the agenda. Note should be made that David Darling also got his start here, beside that nascent group, later following them to the incomparable ECM label. Towner not only debuted on the Consort's Road (1970), a live document of Winter's fresh band, but showed his abilities so overwhelmingly that he nabbed three of the seven writing spots, opening with the now-standard "Icarus."

The rest of the LP was either of elder standards or quilled by Darling, whose sympathies matched Towner's. In fact, Oregon's most hidebound aficionados, ye author amongst them, consider this and its follow-up to not really be Winter albums at all but, instead, the truest first releases by Oregon. Not insignificantly, Ralph's Segovian seriousness was seen directly in his re-arranged cover of Mudarra's "Fantasy, Fugue, and Beads," a gorgeous take.

Road was a wonderland of prowess, intelligence, and acumen, a strain of the ambiental jazz evolving at the time, not just an echo of the older West Coast Cool but, in many ways, a direct outgrowth, as much informed by Chet Baker, Bill & Gil Evans, and Miles as by middle and later, classicalist musics. It also blatantly infused the world flavors now common but then practically unknown, unless one was a fan of Gil, Costa, Bonfa, and others. The interplay of McCandless and Winter was inspired and Walcott's percussings as peripatetic and bracing as they'd ever be. Moore anchored everyone, fusing his bass role simultaneously as rhythm and lead instruments, approaching it in a fashion Colin Hodgkinson (Back Door) and others would shortly take.

"Icarus" was an immensely attractive tune, so much so that it was requoted in the studio, becoming the title for the 1972 album, also dominated by Towner and Darling's compositions. The guitarist's work was mesmerizing, often the centerpoint the rest of the band would work out from, and the importance of the ensemble was quietly recognized when George Martin was shunted in as producer. Billy Cobham, Barry Altschul, and Milt Holland sat lightly within the sessions, lending their talents, but the sound was quintessentially Oregonian. Paul Winter, hindsight proves, discovered and groomed many good players over a long history, but none nearly so impressive as these. Walcott, for instance, could play the pants off Glen Velez with one hand tied behind his back, and none would ever come close to Towner. In plain fact, the students vastly outshone the master and would continue to do so. As would be seen years hence, Winter proceeded to greater fame but not to better music, oft lapsing into sugary, though well-informed, New Agey jazz before bowing out completely.

Oregon became a reality in 1970, during its residency with Winter, recording a quartet LP at a state-of-the-art studio - which, back then, was a *whole* eight tracks! - fabricated within a house on a 40-acre uncultivated section of the Hollywood Hills. Unfortunately, the dreams of the gent who underwrote that venture soon met harsh unyielding concrete in the real world, collapsing ingloriously. The tapes of the session went into storage, the equipment sidled out the door, and a condo tract arose where trees and grass had enjoyed pastoral sway but moments before. Ahhh, Hollywood! The LP saw daylight a decade later but we'll tackle it here, in its chronological place.

Our First Record was indisputably baseline Oregon. The group, despite its modern love of improv, was fundamentally baroque, owing to rare gifts for embracing classical virtues and intelligences so thoroughly that they became second nature, a fundament to work from, not a tomb to die in. Despite wild escapades far from the realms of tradition, the foursome was, in reality, a chamber ensemble. Composition, to them, became a sword with two very sharp edges. One side of the compositional method injected graphic detail, lush delineation wringing emotional and pictorial pinnacles from the combined virtues of separate strengths, while the other side presented hitherto unrealized opportunities for individualized voicings within each setting. This, it needn't be emphasized, was jazz's forté. That highest pitch of the now-venerated style was, after all, largely derived from an admiration of classical and other high-level musics, conveying rules and depths over to idiomized transcendences of what had previously been disparate in the American landscape, brought together now of necessity, claiming territories before pushing them beyond the envelope.

Blues, though the claim is highly controversial (despite books ethnomusicologically written about it), was far more "white" in its antecedents than is popularly credited, but it took the black culture, struggling against impossible odds, to bring everything together and hybridize the definitive new form. The effort originated in unique cultivations, the product of a suppressed class claiming its rightful place in the banquet through superior accomplishment, but it was also a rare feat of meritocratic excellence of an order most milieus never enjoy. Jazz rose as a historic event. What had been bluegrass, gospel, proto-country, madrigal, African, and other musics now fused, first through blues instrumentalists and singers, then via increasing complexities in small Dixie groups.

Enter the later orchestral juggernauts of Basie, Ellington, and others, and we have the era in full bloom. The main point of attraction lay in the sheer wealth of possibility inserted within scripted formats. Never had each ensemble voice had so distinct a role, such an ability to work with its own intelligence in the conversation. In that same environment, the slow-growing trend to produce group compositions (as opposed to arrangement work and spotlit solos), increasingly a habit held over from the classicalist Romantic period, pushed limits to ante up the innovation.

In that last template, a player could embody only just so much in and of himself. Because of that, some players would never have the wherewithal to compose well enough to warrant documentation, but, in a group situation, what any individual might lack, another could make up for, providing just enough oomph to produce competitively valuable work. This lone factor eventually would produce the downfall of what was called "Tin Pan Alley" but allow the rise of an amorphous arena in which communal interaction bred new expression. What, then, if you had a collective of virtuosos all collaborating toward the same end?

The result would be breathtakingly insightful on all levels and that's exactly what Oregon was. Towner dominated the klatsch but not by much; he hadn't allied with halflings. Paul McCandless was a brass and reeds player of astonishing vigor and imagination, indeed the high point of his output hasn't quite been seen since in anyone. Colin Walcott, who favored Carnatic musics as much as spacey jazz, wielded an unorthodox armada of percussive instruments, not to mention respectable work on the sitar. This last was no accident, as he'd been a student of Ravi Shankar, whereas the mastery of his cardinal instruments can be traced back to studies under Alla Rakha. Glen Moore's chiefest virtue was an unimpeachably discerning bass hand, knowing exactly when to, and when not to, speak, investing what would ordinarily be a rhythm section role with outside integrities, forming a subtly and enticingly recessed main voice. One merely needed the wit to hear it properly. He also played a convincing flute.

Throughout the maiden contemporarily invisible LP, Towner displayed every characteristic that would grow and sharpen through the coming years. Whether engaged in mind-bending improv or carefully suggested misty backgrounds, his hand was unwavering, his discretion consummate. On the cut "Japan" alone, he assumed several levels of presence, switching strings back and forth from accompaniment to lead voice, brushing quiet tempera backgrounds before orating in the fore. The album, though it would (as mentioned), languish, presented a musical amalgamation never heard before: a chamber jazz world ensemble.

Their chance to emerge in due time vanished with the woodlands native to that idyllic terrain but re-appeared in 1972, with Music of Another Present Era. Eagerly anticipated by those who'd caught their Winter years, the LP, selling middlingly, was a landmark. Everything shown on First Record continued here, save one very important expansion: almost every member broadened his instrumental palette, showing how deeply each was committed to the art. Moore tacked on the piano, Towner mellophone, Walcott a wealth of new percussives, with McCandless sticking to his customary oboe and English horn. Towner's first opportunity to fully flex came in "Sail." He leaped on it, first providing jumpy staccato chords behind McCandless' starry oboe, then stepping forward for an interlude of leadwork that would make Grant Green, Larry Coryell, and Gabor Szabo proud. Of particular note were his emphases, knowing precisely where to pound the strings and where to caress, for inimitable colorations. "Children of God" was a 1:09 pointillistic spasm in Pendereckian vein, a prelude wherein all the gents showed a penchant for wild dissonance, the next moment stepping into an ominous "Opening," where the guitarist once again displayed the wealth of his trickbag. Ringing harmonics, drone chords, and Carnatic progressions commence the cut before jazzy improv, rock backchords, and modernized classical stylings take over.

The LP was stuffed with Impressionistic interludes, showing the quartet's debts to Bartok, Webern, and various latterday classicalists, while Towner concurrently rooted in the earlier brilliances of Turina, Albeniz, Tarrega, and various masters on up to LeFaro and Farlow. This would continue in Distant Hills (1973), leading off with a song that'd become a semi-classic, "Aurora." The group's expansion of axes continued, with Walcott taking up marimba, clarinet, and guitar; Towner choosing trumpet; Moore with violin and piano; McCandless once again sticking with oboe and English horn. An important change occurred, though. No longer were short gems the pattern; now, extensions provided the meat and potatoes, forums in which the players had opportunities to really stretch out. The numbers became moodier, as in "Dark Spirit," with Moore laying in profoundly mournful bowed bass lines over which Towner buzzed, gamboled, and strummed. Two cuts are plainly labeled as 'free improvs' - not the minute-or-so chirrups of the last LP but six to seven minutes of pure unscripted creativity. "Mi Chirita Suite" is a horn and reed fest, with Ralph playing trumpet amidst an avian clatter, at first not unlike Chick Corea's monumental "Converge."

Winter Light (1974) - an homage perhaps to their erstwhile sponsor? - immediately showed maturity within an already wine-dark talent ruby with wit. McCandless added the bass clarinet to his spare cabinet, Towner took up the clay drums and french horn, Moore stuck with his old fallbacks, and Walcott was always adding exotic new percussives. In "Tide Pool," Towner adopted a sprightly air. The song was McCandless' but Ralph got his spot and demonstrated pristine chord choices, daunting inflection, dazzling leads, and ornamental slide-ups. This one tune constitutes a stand-alone catalogue on how a guitar could conduct itself in dizzying multiplicities - though that was frequently the case anyway, with damn near any song he played. Towner developed a breathy ostinato much ignored by fellow string pluckers but a suspension nonetheless lending an ambiance unobtainable with any other instrument, It was complex (fingerpicked in such instances) while muted and cloudy, a cluster later slowed down to reveal its elements before being inserted back into the song. A key component of Towner's has always been this transmutive ability, elastically re-shuffling any position into whatever's necessary to stretch capabilities, not just for his own part but the entire opus. Egberto Gismonti is capable of the same sort of thing, though he too is criminally ignored, another prime innovator whose marvels should be criteria for college courses.

'75 saw the first live album, simply entitled In Concert. Those who may have doubted that the stratospheric skills demonstrated by the foursome never owed a thing to the studio were disproven straight from the dazzling lead cut, "Become, Seem, Appear," wherein each captures ample space for furious chops and complex interplay. McCandless produces a wooden flute, furthering inventory in the group's hardware. Like most live documents, the purpose was to review the past, augment the present, and perhaps steal a glance at the future. Toward the latter, abstractions deepened and the ensemble's interpersonal tone was more telepathic than ever, clever themes-within-themes proliferating.

1976 saw an experiment the group would indulge once only: the importation of a set of drums, in this case by way of the celebrated Elvin Jones. The result was interesting, worthy, and eminently listenable but proved that traps had no place in the repertoire beyond this somewhat charming one-off. "Le Vin," the first cut, clearly shows why: such a loud and overwhelming instrument smothered the band. The truth was that no matter how skillful Jones was - and he had immense dexterity - the delicate profundities essential to the combo's work got throttled in such an arrangement. About the only song that came off undamaged was Towner's "Brujo," where the composition anticipated bombast and scored it accordingly, the guitarist brashing up his chords to match. Pairing the lauded skins-pounder with Oregon, though, was akin to inserting John Bonham into Chanticleer. Much was lost. Vanguard had been displaying tremendous tolerance in keeping a group that wasn't capturing revenues well, but this tested that alliance. Fortunately, the relationship held.

That LP was followed by another, 1977's Friends, that would further strain the same situation in different circumstances, the second of three tries before the members themselves would come to understand that Oregon's magic was unique unto its founders and no others. This time, David Earl Johnson (later to make an LP or two with Jan Hammer) guested on percussion, Larry Karush on piano (he dueted with Moore for ECM a year earlier) and Bennie Wallace on sax, a gent who'd go on to host an LP for Blue Note with a stellar cast composed of Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Scofield, Dr. John, and others. Oregon was trying to get funky, as "Gospel Song" evidenced a bit too well. It wasn't their forte, it didn't play well.

"Grazing Dreams" brought a new lyricality to Towner's classical guitar, previously only shown in tunes like "The Silence of a Candle," now fleshed more vividly, with self-backup in recessed chords and ornamentations. Ralph further chose what has since been covered by others and may eventually become a standard, the classic "Timeless," a John Abercrombie tune from an album of the same name two years earlier. In this version, he flashed through lightning-fast chord runs in a manner few have ever matched, varying the theme beautifully, complete with pinging harmonics. The song closed the LP's scrambled incoherence on a good note but didn't reassure fans that all was well.

This meant that 1978's Violin, with its ridiculously low-rent cover, was met with bated breath and apprehensive nerves. Zbigniew Seifert, a jazz violinist well-regarded in Europe, with whom the ensemble had played a concert or two, was now apparently a member, or so the liner indicated. It had been decided, while jamming in France, that more was needful in the acquaintance. Fortunately, Oregon made its best move in this gambit, opening with the longest improv they'd ever do, the 15:27 title cut. Seifert was classically oriented, though not in the same manner as his American confreres, and thus the long opus became not the baroque fusion Oregon perpetually excelled at but more a sophisticated prog-jazz try, something to shelve vaguely with Maneige, Il Baricentro, Magma- and the more outsidey fusioneers over in the progrock realm.

This didn't change as side two emerged with "Raven's Wood," speaking more of Grappelli and Gershwin than Vivaldi and Cage, something perhaps that might be expected of the Flock or Jerry Goodman's solo work. Seifert didn't speak the group's language. He couldn't be blamed, as neither did anyone else, something Oregon was finding out three years into the lengthy experiment. On the other hand, the violinist did just fine on the quickly improv'ed "Flagolet," understanding the quiet classicalist anarchy, falling in behind Moore, who doubled him here. Ironically, the song was the solidest of the release.

Thank Christ a second LP appeared that year, this one on Elektra. Out of the Woods not only sported a far more complementary cover, it showcased Oregon and only Oregon, returning the gents to their powers: no sit-ins, no new members, no nothing except pure Oregonian music. The switch in labels heralded a trifle jazzier flavor - that is to say, there was a recognizably pronounced element of trad going on. What was most gratifying, though, was the fact that the group had been chastened in its relatively unwise expansion efforts. Most noticeable was Ralph's adoption of the piano in larger scope, sparklingly showcased in "Vision of A Dancer" but, returning to the guitar in cuts like "Waterwheel," a tapestry woven with McCandless, he again illustrated that singular method of engrossingly fingerplucked constant chording, shifting to a call and response with the oboe player, then tearing down the progressions before standing single notes in their stead, enunciated with punctuatorial downstrikes. The song shimmers with exhilarating trade-offs.

The group's sign-off with the label that had nurtured them for seven years (Vanguard), Moon and Mind (1979), was to see an exceptionally vivid return to basics and their strongest statement in years. Elektra may have provided a new branch but the lads knew their roots. "Person-to-Person" pitted the guitar against a dulcimer, not an easy instrument to cope with and a weird mid-ground between guitar and piano, struck, in somewhat the same fashion as the latter, with "sounding spoons" but emitting guitar noises verging close to a Celtic harp's, making unusual use of the greatly reduced string lengths. Once again, clouds of chords rose up, abetted by peppered offsets. These were so complementary to the Appalachian instrument that, had it not been for the dulcimer's perennially higher register, the two would've been indistinguishable. By the third cut, the singularity of the LP made itself clear: Moon and Mind was a collection of duets. This, then, accounted for the unrelinquished chamber strains.

Towner had competition in Walcott this time around: the percussionist's sitar playing had improved dramatically, best shown doubled with Moore on "Rejoicing." The LP was also the group's moodiest outing in years. The guitarist's cover of LeFaro's "Gloria's Step" is both lively and elegiac, with angular runs distilling the best to-the-minute use a classical guitar had seen, a song Jim Hall could sigh over, yet Towner's take had Tal Farlow peeking out from the score. Most surprising was his Hammond organ playing on "Elevator." True to unorthodox approaches, it far more resembled a synth through its frequently choked-off runs, turned in this song to resemble the strange envelope parameters of what was mostly a prog-popular instrument, adeptly mastered by Jan Hammer, whose composition "I Remember Me" was covered on side one of the LP. The album, solid as granite, was not only acclaimed by slavering fans but by critics in general.

This masterpiece carried over to their next collection for Elektra. Roots in the Sky, which will kick off Part 2, heading into the ECM years and beyond.

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