Three Guitarists | Ralph Towner
Oregon-born Ralph Towner's acoustic classical and 12-string guitar playing can be heard on albums by Larry Coryell, Weather Report and many others. He has progressed through jazz and other musical forms, to the point where his improvised music defies categorisation. Coryell calls him 'the world's greatest living guitarist.'
Early in 1975 I was fortunate enough to interview Larry Coryell. His response to being asked which guitarists' playing he enjoyed currently was a long list including one name new to me. 'Who is Ralph Towner?' I asked.
'You don't know who Ralph Towner is? He's the world's greatest living guitar player! Don't you know that Weather Report album (I Sing The Body Electric) where there is a 12-string guitar solo? Well, that's Ralph Towner, and the reason that I think he is the greatest is because he's got the guts not to go electric. He just sticks with a 12-string acoustic and a classical six-string guitar. Doesn't even use a pick and yet he can play so fast, but above all he's musical. He's got a charm to his sound. He has no ego — he's a gentleman and a scholar - but he's not too rigid. He's just fantastic.'
Coryell is like an unofficial PR man for Towner, bringing him to the attention of journalists and guitar fans at every opportunity. This is fortunate as Towner's record company, ECM, who have released his ten or so albums, have a concept of promotion that puts me in mind of the Official Secrets Act. To their credit they do release many fine jazz and improvisational records, but still, after three years, I haven't located a discography or biography of the guitarist.
Towner was in London in September for less than sixteen hours, armed with his Ramirez classical guitar for a concert playing duets with fellow guitarist John Abercrombie, and related to me some of the details of his rather unusual musical background.
'I started on the classical guitar at the age of 23 and that was my first introduction to the guitar. I was a music composition student before that at the University of Oregon. I studied for five years and could barely write when I got out of there. Come to think of it I couldn't write at all when I went in! However in retrospect I can see that I did learn quite a lot there. I enrolled after graduating from High School just like living out American Graffiti. If you've seen the movie, that's the way it was in my High School, I identify with everyone in that movie actually.
'I'd had a musical background. My mother was a piano teacher and they tell me I improvised on piano from the age of two or three years. I studied trumpet formally when I was seven. I got bored with that after 12 years and dropped it at the age of 18 when I went to university.'
And what was the great musical revelation that made him move from piano to guitar at the age of 23, I asked.
'I went into a music store to buy some paper or something and a very slick salesman sold me a classical guitar. It was a bad guitar which cost me 100 dollars and it took me a year to pay for it. But it fascinated me and as I heard other classical guitarists I realised I wasn't making very good headway teaching myself. So in 1963 I went to Vienna to study under Professor Karl Sheit... be careful how you spell that,' Towner laughs.
During his first year of study with the professor, Ralph lived in a 12 dollar a week single room spending his entire time playing and studying guitar. He feels that part of the reason behind the success of that year's work was his isolation. He spoke no German and of course was cut off from all social/domestic distractions that he might experience if back home in Oregon. Also his musical background could now be channelled into something he really loved... the guitar.
1966 found Towner living in Seattle, Washington. He was by then able to give classical guitar recitals, but made his living by means of his jazz trio piano playing. There he met some Brazilians who introduced him to their music and that of guitarists Baden Powell and Luis Bonfa. Still living very much on lounge bar gigs, Towner found the Brazilian flavour an interesting addition to his musical repertoire, which was also acceptable to the owners of the rooms he was working. Then came his second year of study in Vienna before he moved on to his present base, New York.
'New York was a shock but I did survive on a level by means of my piano playing which is very Bill Evans Trio orientated, with a bit of the old Scott Lafaro Trio influence in there too. I met Airto and for the first year played around in little clubs. I played mostly piano but we did some guitar things, Airto then played with Miles Davis and became famous all of a sudden. The whole music scene in New York was exciting and I had quite a successful year.
'The guitar really suits me and I realised it was the instrument for me to concentrate on as my main instrument. However I was adequate on piano and when I arrived in New York I survived that way because you don't go around sitting in on classical guitar and getting gigs.
I was sort of a third string Chick Corea, he'd call and offer me gigs he didn't want to do anymore. I was sort of cleaning up... but cleaning up to some great piano players.
'I used to rearrange show tunes and standards pushing them into an area where they sound unresolved. Through constant rehashing I learned a lot about disguising music through harmony until I could do it so well that I decided I should be writing my own pieces. Also I was developing something on guitar which couldn't be done with traps (regular drum kit) or sax. Now it can because studio and amplification devices have developed.'
So at the age of 30 Ralph Towner started recording for ECM. Now, eight years later, he is apotheosised by his peers, having progressed through jazz frameworks to a form of improvisation totally unique to himself.
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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