Ralph Towner has been spreading it around for quite some time now. The 73-year-old US-born Italian resident musician is best known for his guitar work with pioneering world music outfit Oregon, which played at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat five years ago, but his instrumental arsenal also includes piano, synthesizer, percussion and trumpet. Towner will return to these shores next week to give concerts at the Zappa clubs in Tel Aviv and Herzliya on November 26 and 27 (doors open at 8:15 p.m., show starts at 10 p.m.).
Towner’s four-decade-plus oeuvre covers a wide range of styles and genres, and his discography includes jazz and third stream material heavily seasoned with folk and world music. Considering his mixed formative musical education, the sound spread is not surprising. His earliest recollections are of the jazz variety.
“When I was five years of age – that was in 1945 – my older brothers had begun a large collection of WWII records – swing bands, and later the Nat King Cole trio, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrongand the like,” recalls Towner. “Most importantly, when I began to play piano, I started to listen to [pianist] Bill Evans, [bassist] Scott LaFaro, [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] and [British pianist and percussionist] Victor Feldman.”
In fact, it took Towner quite a while to lay his hands on a guitar, and when he did, he took it very seriously. He says that his earlier experience in piano playing has influenced the way he approaches the guitar.
“I began to play the guitar when I was 22, and I became impressed with its similarity to piano technique,” Towner observes. “I decided to study formally after I finished my diploma in music composition, and I went to Vienna to study as a beginner with a master teacher [and guitarist and composer] called Karl Scheit.”
Diligent as he may have been as a student, Towner enjoyed the commercial sounds of the day as a teenager and got in on the act himself as soon as he could.
“I had a rock band in high school,” he recalls. “I played standup piano a la Jerry Lee Lewis. I liked Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and all those guys. Before rock, I played the trumpet in Dixieland bands. I was in on the first wave of rock in 1958. I didn’t care for Elvis, as it was really more country western sounding to me.”
Classical music eventually entered Towner’s field of hearing, and he says he naturally took on an eclectic range of influences.
“I have been influenced by composers like Stravinsky, Bartok, Bach, Berg and Chopin and by Julian Bream’s guitar playing. But it is impossible to list the many musicians and composers that have affected me,” he says. “Influences are not only about a specific musician but fragments here and there that one manages to absorb from many sources.”
It was when Towner eventually relocated to New York City that he started being exposed to an even wider range of sounds and genres, and he began exploring music from all kinds of cultures.
“This really began when I moved to New York in 1968. There was a great influx of Asian, South American and European musicians living there at the time and a movement to include new scales, time signatures and harmonies to the art of improvisation. My own classical studies acquainted me with 20th-century classical composers, so I was prepared to incorporate new ideas into my own playing,” he says.
It was around this time that Towner started carving out his own path through the myriad sounds and rhythms of the expansive world music domain. He joined world music pioneer Paul Winter’s Consort ensemble in the late 1960s. Towner’s cohorts in the group included reedman Paul McCandless, bass player Glen Moore and multiinstrumentalist Colin Walcott, who had already started delving into Indian music and became known for his sitar and tabla playing.
A couple of years after joining Winter, Towner, McCandless, Moore and Walcott left to form Oregon, which released several highly influential records based on a captivating mix of folk music, Indian classical forms, avant-garde jazzinfluenced free improvisation and some Western classical colorings.
It was also around this time that Towner signed up with the Germany-based ECM record label, and almost all his work outside Oregon since 1972 has come out on ECM. For Towner, more than 40 years on, it has been a happy association on many levels.
“Being with ECM gives me the unusual situation of having my entire life’s solo recordings still available to purchase and hear, much as a writer of literature,” he notes. “Most recording companies drop the artists or stop printing the recordings. Even more important, I have the atmosphere and freedom to record with the highest aesthetic quality possible.”
Towner’s latest release on ECM,Travel Guide, features an unusual lineup of three guitarists, with Austrian jazz artist Wolfgang Muthspiel and Kazakhstan-born Australian classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan. It is an intriguing instrumental array which, says Towner, offers solo as well as trio opportunities but also demands attention to detail.
“It is similar to playing with a piano player, as all the instruments are capable of playing completely solo. And it takes a bit more of conscious orchestration in the preparation of what material you play,” he explains.
More than half a century after Towner decided to become serious about his craft, he says he is more relaxed about what and how he performs and composes.
“I write more music that classical guitarists are more comfortable with. My own playing seems deeper with age,” he notes. “There is the same intensity but with less hysteria.
It is a general maturation of timing and selection.”
Towner says he is looking forward to his solo concerts in Israel and intends to provide his audiences with a well-rounded musical experience.
“When I prepare for a solo concert, I pay attention to the variety of the pieces and how they affect the musical curve of the whole concert,” he says, adding that he tends to offer as wide a textural and sonic range as possible. “I always take my classical guitar with me, and I choose between two guitars – a 12-string or a baritone guitar – for a contrasting sound.”
The instrumental combination and Towner’s immense wealth of musical exploration should make for an absorbing listening experience.
For tickets and more information: (03) 762-6666; *9080; and www.zappa-club.co.il