Contemporary jazz guitarist Ralph Towner, a founding member of Oregon, has blended classical motifs and folk styles with jazz harmony and rhythms over his illustrious career. His extensive discography includes notable albums such as "Diary" (1973), "Solstice" (1975), "Batik" (1978), and "Chiaroscuro" (2008), along with numerous albums with Oregon and other groups. Towner's musical journey began in Chehalis, Washington, where he grew up in a supportive environment that fostered his musical experimentation. He started playing piano at a very young age and later picked up the trumpet. Towner was deeply influenced by pianist Bill Evans, incorporating Evans' style into his own piano playing and compositions. Still, that all changed when at the age of 22 he discovered his passion for the classical guitar, going on to study it in Vienna. A few years later after playing with several classical chamber groups, Towner moved to New York in 1968 to immerse himself in the jazz scene.
It was in New York City where he played with notable musicians like Jimmy Garrison and Jeremy Steig before joining the Paul Winter Consort. In 1971, Towner and a couple other musicians left to form Oregon, a group that blended jazz, classical, improvisation, and world folk traditions.
Throughout his career, Towner has released albums both as a solo artist and with the band Oregon. He signed with ECM Records in the 1970s and collaborated with musicians like Gary Burton, Jan Garbarek, and Eddie Gomez, going on to help shape the sound of ECM. In the early 1980s, Towner incorporated synthesizers into his compositions, adding a new dimension to his music.
In the new millennium, Towner's creativity and virtuosity remained vibrant and his talents can be heard on several albums including "Anthem" (2001), which featured covers and originals, and "Travel Guide" (2012) with his trio consisting of Slava Grigoryan and Wolfgang Muthspiel. Towner's solo album "My Foolish Heart" (2017) paid homage to Bill Evans and received critical acclaim. It reached a high position on the Jazz Album charts, solidifying Towner's place as a respected musician.
I can’t say enough about how Towner's musical journey has impacted my passion for the ECM sound, with his unique blend of jazz, classical, and folk influences. Each of his albums showcases his mastery of the acoustic guitar and his ability to create captivating compositions. His songs stand beyond time and time signatures, phrased as if they were spoken words, invoking one’s deepest emotions and sensitivities.
Now, in March of 2023, Towner has released a solo guitar album titled “At First Light,” which happens to be perfect for those of us who wish to immerse themselves in the enchanting world of acoustic guitar pieces. Additionally, the album is available as a lossless 96kHz / 24-bit stereo download, which is the format I reviewed here. This solo classical guitar, jazz, and world influenced album showcases Towner's exceptional talent and captures the essence of his artistry. The recording quality is impeccable, ensuring an engaging and captivating listening experience. From the movement of the fingers across the strings to the tonal subtleties of his fingers plucking each note, the pure transparency is spectacular.
Towner's affiliation with ECM Records, which began in 1970, is highlighted in the album's liner notes. He acknowledges the profound impact of ECM's founder, Manfred Eicher, whose commitment to excellence and sonic innovation still resonates today. The label has released exceptional jazz recordings over the past five decades, and this latest album adds to that legacy. The dynamics and immediacy are fabulous with ample air and a nice depth to the stereo field. The recording is also available on vinyl and compact disc, but I am certain that high resolution enthusiasts will seek out the hi-res download version.
Comprising of eleven compositions, eight of which are penned by Towner. Listeners will find him paying homage to his earliest musical influences by including three timeless classics: the traditional melody "Danny Boy," the delightful "Make Someone Happy" by Jule Styne, and the timeless "Little Old Lady" by Hoagy Carmichael. Towner plays nicely with the melodies, carving out plenty of space for his innovative stylings while leaving a clear trail to the original sentiment of the song.
As depicted on the front cover, Towner pours out delicate tones from his classical guitar transporting listeners to a world of subtle beauty. A must have for long-time fans, and a most worthy addition for contemporary jazz collectors and acoustic guitar enthusiasts. Truly “At First Light” is a testament to Towner's enduring artistry and a captivating addition to his vast discography.
Released March 17, 2023.
Hi-Res Lossless 96kHz / 24-bit stereo download, also on vinyl and SHM-CD, plus via streaming services.
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About the Author
Wesley is a lifelong music enthusiast. He started his career in the recording industry in New York City as an audio engineer, producer, and studio manager. Subsequently he toured across America as a guitarist with the short-lived band Land's Crossing. After many years in the technology sector and amassing a substantial vinyl and CD collection, he delved into immersive audio and created Hi-Res Edition to share with other listeners about the sound quality and discrete mixes available on many formats. He recently upgraded his system to 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.