Ralph Towner, Kurt Elling
January 1, 1970Just the usual two items this week, but they were both of added interest to yours truly. The Calendar pick led with Kurt Elling, but it was mostly announcing the remarkable lineup of jazz coming to Watertown's Arsenal Center for the Arts next week: Elling on Monday, Sonya Kitchell on Tuesday, Danilo Perez on Wednesday, the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra on Thursday, and Bill Charlap next Saturday. Who knew that Watertown could learn big names like Elling, Perez, and Charlap?
The column subject was guitarist-composer Ralph Towner, who is perhaps best known for his work with the group Oregon. I must have seen that group at least a half-dozen times during my last two years of high school, at a long-gone club in Evanston, Illinois, called the Amazingrace. It was this strange little room that you entered through a record store. You would then sit on the floor to watch the band, or, if you preferred — or just showed up too late to sit at ground level — in the single row of folding chairs in the balcony. Early birds in the front row on the main floor were no more than a foot or two from the musicians. And there were some very good musicians. Among the ones I saw there: Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, and of course Oregon. The place had no liquor license, but those of age would bring their own bottles of wine with them. There was a very hippie-ish vibe to the place, and the sound system was superb. And I don't think the cover charge ever exceeded $5.
In any case, it was fun catching up with Towner after all these years. He looks a lot different these days than he did in the late '70s — his hair is cut shorter (he told me, laughing, about also having a big bald patch on top) and he dresses like the distinguished gentleman of 66 that he's become. I had a quick chat with Oregon's bassist, Glen Moore, too. Him I remember always performing in his bare feet.
Towner is a very good pianist, too, by the way. I've always thought I'd be a very happy guy if I could play the piano as well as he does — and it's been his second instrument for more than 40 years now. Check out his playing on the Jim Pepper tune "Witchi-Tai-To," from Oregon's early CD "Winter Light." It's deceptively simple — just Towner's piano and the late Collin Walcott on dulcimer — but beautiful.
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Towner strings together quite a career
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 16, 2006
Ralph Towner is a different sort of guitar hero. There is no plectrum plucking for the man who introduced both classical and 12-string guitar to jazz back in the 1970s, a time when John McLaughlin and other rock-influenced guitar stars were electrifying jazz via fusion.
There is also the fact that Towner didn't even pick up the instrument until he was 22 and wrapping up his degree in classical composition from the University of Oregon. He'd started off on trumpet at age 7, and switched his focus to piano when he got to college.
"I'd been playing the piano, working as hard as I could to be exactly like Bill Evans," recalls Towner, 66, by phone from Rome, where he has lived for three years with his wife, the Italian actress Mariella Lo Sardo. "And I discovered the guitar."
Classical guitar, that is; the instrument he'll be playing solo (as well as his 12-string) at the Regattabar Tuesday , celebrating the release of his latest solo CD, "Time Line." Towner says he hadn't paid any attention to classical guitar until he heard someone playing it at Oregon, and playing it beautifully.
"A light bulb went off," he says. "I managed to get hold of a classical guitar, and realized that in order to play it well, you need a really great teacher. I kind of convinced myself immediately that I wasn't going to waste a lot of time being self-taught, and I really wanted to learn in the classical fashion."
The teacher Towner chose was the Austrian classical master Karl Scheit, which meant moving to Vienna. Traipsing off to a foreign country to learn an instrument at age 22 might strike some as impractical, but there were no authority figures available to argue the point with Towner: His father died when he was 3, his mother when he was 20.
That Towner fell for and wanted to pursue classical guitar didn't surprise Glen Moore, a classmate who played bass in their Evans-inspired piano trio in college and who has performed beside Towner the past 36 years in the group Oregon.
"Ralph felt there was something else," Moore says. "He didn't really love bebop in the way that a lot of people do. It wasn't his main love. It was more the incredible beauty and clarity of the piano with the bass, where there was this flexibility in the harmony that could be altered by what either of the people did."
The 12-string was added to Towner's arsenal after he'd spent some time gigging around New York on piano and guitar. By 1970, he'd joined the Paul Winter Consort, and Winter had a 12-string he wanted Towner to try playing.
"I think a Joni Mitchell piece, probably it was," recalls Towner. "She always had a particular sound with the 12-string, and in fact I suppose that might have a lot to do with the way I started to play with a lot of tunings and things. But I still finger like a classical guitar, which was very strange. I mean, it gave it a more powerful sound and [made it] able to do things that you never had heard on a 12-string before, because it's traditionally a plectrum instrument."
The elements of Towner's distinctive guitar sound were now in place. Towner, Moore, Paul McCandless, and Collin Walcott split from Winter's group to form Oregon in 1970. The band's 1999 CD "Oregon in Moscow," recorded with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, earned four Grammy nominations.
Meanwhile, Towner has maintained a separate solo career with ECM Records. "Time Line" was recorded in the church at an Austrian mountain monastery and features mostly Towner originals — many of them inspired by imagery of the Sicilian countryside, Towner and his wife having lived in Palermo for several years before their move to Rome. There are also two standards that Towner associates with Evans. Three essential influences on Towner's work — Evans, classical guitar, and Brazilian music — linger to this day.
"It's a good combination of training that I put together," Towner says. "It just happened to fall together — the kind of talents that I have and the kind of study that I did kind of add up to this thing. And being a composer is maybe the most important thing — the fact that I write so much of what I play gives it also another chance to be a little bit more individual than normal."
Ralph Towner performs solo guitar at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Regattabar. Tickets $20. Call 617-395-7757 or visit www.regattabarjazz.com.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. 617-923-8487. 8 p.m. $35.
Vocalist Kurt Elling (above) kicks off a week of star-studded jazz at Watertown's Arsenal Center for the Arts on Monday, part of the Summer Concerts on the Charles series at the center's Mosesian Theater. Elling, with multiple Grammy nominations behind him, has in recent years routinely been voted best male vocalist in the Down Beat and JazzTimes readers' polls. Next up is teenaged singing sensation Sonya Kitchell on Tuesday. Pianist Danilo Perez, best known for his work in Wayne Shorter's quartet, will lead his own formidable trio with Ben Street and Adam Cruz on Wednesday. The Boston-based Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra returns to the center on June 22, having previously unveiled new work there in February. And pianist Bill Charlap will wrap up the week with his superb, longstanding trio (Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums) on June 24.
Fri 6-16 Hank Jones Trio with Roberta Gambarini Jones turns 88 next month, but his piano mastery only improves with age. Gambarini is an Italian vocalist whose singing matches the title of her new CD, "Easy to Love." Scullers, Doubletree Guest Suites Boston, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 & 10 p.m. $17, $57 with dinner. Repeats Sat.
Sat 6-17 The Igor Butman Quartet Saxophonist Butman logged some time studying at Berklee in the late '80s, building on the jazz skills he'd acquired from Voice of America broadcasts in his native Russia. Since then he has returned home to open a jazz club in Moscow and become, according to the New York Times, "the pre-eminent public figure on Russia's jazz scene." Rounding out his quartet are three countrymen: pianist Anton Baronin, bassist Vitaly Solomonov, and drummer Eduard Zizak. The Real Deal Jazz Club & Café, Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge. 617-876-7777. 7 & 9:30 p.m. $16.