sheer lunacy: overlooking Towner

Open Letter (ECM)
Ralph Towner

By John Goodin

A recent issue of a popular national music magazine ran a cover story promising to reveal to its readers the "100 best guitarists." As we approach the end of the Guitar Century, this is no mean task. However, in their haste to honor every excellent player who ever added a new twist to rock or blues music, some truly original guitarists were overlooked. Ralph Towner is one.

A virtuoso finger-style player of both 12string and classical guitar, Towner has an instantly recognizable sound. His style is beyond classification, although he comes out of the jazz tradition. His influence among guitarists is enormous.

Towner is also a prolific composer, having written and recorded dozens of harmonically advanced, melodically charming tunes over the past quarter-century. His work with the Paul Winter Consort at the start of the '70s resulted in the recording of his "hit" song "Icarus" and the formation of the group Oregon, which has recorded many albums. Two of his pieces, "Icarus" and "Ghost Beads," have craters on the moon named after them by U.S. astronauts.

Towner's most recent release is Open Letter, a collection of solo pieces and duets with drummer Peter Erskine. This is the latest in a 20-year-long string of solo, duet and small group recordings for ECM, including work with players such as Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Jan Gabarek and Jack DeJohnette.

Along with an especially good selection of original tunes (highlights for me are the moody "Adrift" and the slippery "Magnolia Island"), Open Letter features gentle renderings of Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" and the Cahn-Styne standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Towner's playing is strong and subtle. Erskine is graceful and imaginative in his support. And on the tunes where electronics are employed, Open Letter provides a free lesson in creative and tasteful use of synthesizers.

For the uninitiated, Open Letter is an excellent introduction to the work of this major guitarist/composer/improviser. The long-time fan will not be disappointed either.