Ralph Towner has just been on holiday. To the guitarist this is rather more noteworthy than helping redefine improvised music over the last 45 years by blending jazz, classical and South American elements.
“I’m just learning from my wife how to take a vacation without going mad,” the American says from his home in Rome, and it has taken 20 years of marriage to the Italian actress Mariella Lo Sardo to reach this point. “We were right by the sea in Sicily for a month and a half,” he continues. “It was great because I kind of broke a lot of the habits of picking up the guitar in the same room, and the same chord coming out, or the same notes. A change of scene, and this wonderful sea air and beautiful surroundings – it renewed me a lot. I started writing different things.”
Not that this was a holiday from the guitar. “I played every day,” he says. “It’s really a cruel instrument. You can’t let it go for more than a couple of days, or you scramble to make up those days. To keep your dexterity and strength on the instrument you can’t let up on it.”
Towner’s virtuosity is the more remarkable because he was a initially a pianist who became one of contemporary jazz’s few specialist acoustic guitarists, firstly in the Paul Winter Consort and as a guest with Weather Report, and then in Oregon and his own projects. He also has a trio with acclaimed Australian classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan and Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who were both long-term fans of Towner’s work. Having debuted in Australia in 2005, this trio has released two albums, with the second, Travel Guide, on the prestigious German ECM label, Towner’s stamping ground since 1972.
Although the trio has developed intricate arrangements akin to those of a string trio, improvising remains the centrepiece, with Towner looking for more sophisticated approaches than chains of solos over the same chord pattern, as was the case when he was young bebop pianist in New York.
“I wanted to have each individual improviser improvise on different material, so I’d write more sectional music,” he explains. “I really follow my instincts when I write. I want it to be as natural as speech. I don’t think it’s necessary for an audience to be aware of the bare bones, or even be distracted by what a good guitar player you might be. I’d rather have people drawn into the music, and basically take the journey that the travel guide’s offering.’’
Towner sprang to prominence contributing 12-string guitar to Weather Report’s 1972 album I Sing The Body Electric, and at 74 remains improvised music’s preeminent 12-string practitioner and classical guitarist. He, in turn rates Muthspiel and Grigoryan as being at the top of their respective games. “The nice thing about playing with the younger guys is they have that enthusiasm,” he says, “and it’s wonderful to have that energy. We get along really well, and I’m not really aware that I’m that much older than them. I keep forgetting that. You just have to stay away from mirrors!”
Towner/Muthspiel/Grigoryan: City Recital Hall, November 1; Street Theatre, Canberra, November 2.