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Ralph Towner — At First Light
(ECM 2758, 2023, CD / LP / DL)

by Jeff Melton, Published 2023-04-08

At First Light Cover art

Adopted Italian by way of the Pacific Northwest, guitarist and composer, Ralph Towner has always been a performer of highly endearing qualities. Although primarily known for his acoustic guitar prowess (on nylon, 6 and 12 string steel versions), he always veers away from being pigeon-holed into any simple categorization due to his strong sense of structure. Initially having seen him perform live in an acoustic quartet configuration, I was surprised to see him begin the gig by improvising on acoustic piano for the first four pieces of the set! And making a heyday of it! Flash to present day, where he has picked up his solo acoustic instrument to wade through several numbers: eight of his own songs as well as three curious covers including a stripped-down rendering of a later period Oregon piece, “Guitarra Piccante” from 1991’s Always Never and Forever. The group piece is a rather spry, perky tune that emphasizes subtle tempo driven by Trilok Gurtu’s bouncy tabla, whereas here the spotlight is on the clever but subtly inviting chord progression that allows Towner to present some fine chops. The seasoned player is competently aware of how best to purposefully obscure that emotive line between melody and improv in a method that again comes through distinctly across this almost introspective endeavor. On these representative eleven tracks recorded in Lugano in February last year, the longtime ECM vanguard continues to invitingly implore us to explore locales where our feelings are at their utmost: friendly, familiar, and found. As on his vast catalog dating back to 1973’s Diary, the passionate player articulates a rich sense of form by often framing an idea, then adjusting slightly, directing the intuitive listener through a seemingly remote and mysterious journey just from this particular phrasing. The opening cut, “Flow” shows the 83-year-old veteran keen to deliver an emotional weight through implied meter and a stark but engaging arrangement. The best example of this may be in his rendering of the Irish traditional “Danny Boy.” Literally in Towner’s hands this familiar melody is given an elusive touch while retaining a barely recognizable expression. Other the other hand, Hoagy Carmichael’s show tune, “Little Old Lady” (first popularized by Al Bowlly and later covered by Julie Andrews) gets a happy, quaint rendition here in Towner’s capable fingers. “The Hollows” is perhaps the most obtuse of Towner’s own pieces on the recording if only because it is emotionally unsettling as he probes into a uncomfortable corner where ultimately finds his way toward a resolution of sorts. Towner’s refined ability to render delicate beauty in the ears of the beholder are evident on pieces such as his own work, “Ubi Sunt,” and the album closer, ”Empty Stage.” The former track feels like a careful prelude to a wistful tale of impending woe, while the last track summarizes the journey so far, but leaves many questions unanswered. In summary, Towner continues to illustrate the wonderfully recognizable traits he has developed over time that literally have made his back catalog a truly timeless treasure. Highly recommended.

Filed under: New releases, 2023 releases

Related artist(s): Ralph Towner

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