Taking a turn for the mellow this weekend with Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie live at the Blue Note in New York on March 5,1997.
One of the great collaborations, the style and playing of Towner and Abercrombie couldn’t be more different yet despite, or maybe because of that, they were a seamless duo of great subtlety.
Best known as the lead composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for the acoustic jazz ensemble “Oregon”, Towner has also had a rich and varied solo career that has seen fruitful and memorable musical collaboration with such great modern musicians as Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Larry Coryell, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Gary Peacock.
Towner was born in Chehalis, Washington on March 1st, 1940 into a musical family, his mother a piano teacher and his father a trumpet player. Towner and his siblings were raised in a nurturing and empowering environment that encouraged free musical experimentation and expression. In 1958, Towner enrolled in the University of Oregon as an art major, later changing his major to composition. He soon thereafter met bassist Glen Moore who would become a lifelong musical partner in the band Oregon.
It was about this time that Towner discovered the early LPs of Bill Evans, whom Towner emulated and whose influence he began to incorporate into his own piano style and composition. It was not much longer until Towner also bought a classical guitar on a lark and became entranced enough with the instrument that the early 1960s saw him heading to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit. In 1968 Towner moved to New York City and immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, eventually landing a position with the Paul Winter Consort where the friendships and musical partnering with Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, and Collin Walcott were forged, a musical chemistry which was destined to alchemize into the band Oregon. Paul Winter also bestowed Towner with his first 12-string guitar. Towner has since coaxed the 12-string into imbuing his work with such a characteristic uniqueness that most jazz fans, given the two keywords “12-string” and “jazz” would immediately blurt the name Ralph Towner.
Towner’s working relationship with producer Manfred Eicher of ECM Records began in 1972 and would provide a forum for his growth as a leader and collaborator with other jazz giants, all while concomitantly breaking open musical frontiers with Oregon throughout the intervening years. ECM’s roster of low-volume acts was decidedly contrary to the amplified popular zeitgeist of the era, and provided Towner an opportunity to connect and create with some of the more iconoclastic and innovative artists of the musical culture in the 1970s. Towner’s ECM years also saw his most minimalist, yet most bold, endeavor. “Solo Concert”, released in 1980 on ECM, was conceptually elemental, a solo live guitar recital. Yet, no one to date had ever synthesized classical contrapuntal composition with improvisational and oddly-metered jazz like this before, especially in such a risky arena as a live performance. Such solo work would later become Towner’s signature on recordings such as “Ana” and “Anthem”, or augmented only by Gary Peacock’s bass on “Oracle” and “A Closer View”.
Born in 1944 in Port Chester, New York, John Abercrombie grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he began playing the guitar aged 14. He started out imitating Chuck Berry licks, but the bluesy music of Barney Kessel soon attracted him to jazz. Abercrombie enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and teamed up with other students to play local clubs and bars. After graduating, he went to New York, where he quickly became one of the city’s most in-demand session players and recorded with Gil Evans, Gato Barbieri and Barry Miles, among many others.
The 1990s and 2000s marked a time of constantly changing associations. In 1992, Abercrombie, drummer Adam Nussbaum, and Hammond organist Jeff Palmer made a free-jazz album. He then started a trio with Nussbaum and organist Dan Wall and released While We Were Young (1992), Speak of the Devil (1994), and Tactics (1997). He added trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, violinist Mark Feldman and saxophonist Joe Lovano to the trio to record Open Land (1999). The Gateway band reunited for the album Homecoming (1995).
Abercrombie continued to tour and record and remained associated with ECM, with whom he had a relationship for more than 40 years. While firmly grounded in the jazz guitar tradition, he also experimented with electronic effects. As he said in an interview, “I’d like people to perceive me as having a direct connection to the history of jazz guitar, while expanding some musical boundaries.”
Abercrombie died of heart failure in Cortlandt Manor, New York, at the age of 72.
Hit the Play button and settle in for the next 44 or so minutes. Well worth it.