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Ralph Towner - Solstice CD (album) cover

SOLSTICE

Ralph Towner

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.33 | 43 ratings

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toddbashee
5 stars I'm biased, but I'll try to make it helpful. Maybe my Towner story will offer a new listener a little glimpse of what the impact of his music can be. For starters, any prog lover with an open mind, should be fascinated - not put off dismissive nor intimidated - by what is unique about him and his music.

Towner should be understood as an innovative composer-performer who transcends and sidesteps ANY genre. He is classifiable as a world/jazz/classical/improvisatory musician playing a classical guitar with classical technique, with lyrical structures, unique chord voicing (one measure, and there is no mistaking him or any musician who has ever made a recording), virtuoso technique, creative mix of acoustic, electric, and esoteric instruments, and both free time and strangely grooving, shifting, odd-meter rhythms, with and without percussion. Though his percussionists are among the most creative you will ever hear (Jon Christensen is a Norwegian legend of artful, restrained-yet-passionate drumming). This ain't progressive rock, but it hits all the marks a prog-lover is likely to require, except the bombast of some prog artists.

In college, 1983, I was a classic prog-lover, feeling sad because I was sure I had heard it all. Genesis first, Yes, Gentle Giant, sometimes ELP, plus Canterbury, RIO, as much obscure and esoteric stuff as I could find which felt like it had heart, edge, and substance. There was, I believed, no new progressive rock, nor anything to do for me what Zeppelin and The Beatles did. This day offered the two musical paths, unexpected, which would lead me to still-enriching and thrilling musical worlds which wind together and apart, but never failing to offer thrills and creative nourishment. Add to this the discovery, around 2005, that lots of good and great prog had begun to grow out of a renaissance of devotion to its sound and values a number of years earlier, while I had stopped paying attention: Echolyn, Flower Kings, Anglagard, Anekdoten, Big Big Train, etc. That's for another review.

There was a little record store on campus. On lunch break, I sleep-walked in and started my habitual rifling-through the stacks, not expecting anything. First, I came upon the orange cover of Miles Smiles. I remembered that my Dad - a plainly dressed, mild- mannered-looking professor/civil servant type who was both far more passionate, volatile, and open-minded yet opinionated than he seemed, especially about music, had an encyclopedic sensitivity to classical music had an iffy but sometimes positive attitude toward jazz. I was sure it wouldn't suck, and I put aside any prejudices about what I thought "jazz" was...and there was the beginning of half of the twofold path.

I bought Miles Smiles, and one piece of significance of that album, among several, was that it introduced me to musicians who led to other musicians - like DeJohnette thru Tony Williams, Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler (the latter on Bruford's first album, the former name-dropped as the bassist he WANTED on One of a Kind) through my new love for acoustic bass and trumpets, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter leading to Joni Mitchell (a truly, massively progressive musician, if you didn't know). Wheeler, DeJohnette, and Holland were also mainstays of the ECM music-world, so there is one way the paths converge and diverge.

But that same day, the other record I found was Solstice....the sheer black cover with the abstracted trees, ice blue, set in a stark square against all black, simple lettering organized in perfect, simple geometry, was tantalizing, and would always be associated with the pristine qualities of ECM music, whether minimalist chamber-jazz free or fiery, or classical re-framings, or unclassifiable synthesis of elements from the bigger universe. I was bored, and the packaging and player-credits, they were interesting to start with. And, that sound-quality....nothing like it. ECM is a musical world, not a label or a company.

I played Solstice before the Miles Davis. That moment was just a notch below losing my virginity. No idea what to expect. Jaw dropped. Thought was: "this is my music. I've been waiting for this". Twelve-string and classical guitar, with sax and flute, plucked, bowed, and multi-tracked electric cello and five string bass, plus drums? Musicians from three different cultures?

On goes Oceanus. Resembles nothing. Hit my Prog Receptors, but sounded nothing like any prog I knew of. Open, shimmering twelve-string chords - chords I'd never heard before, at least not that way. In comes a tapestry of smoothly skittering, free-swinging ride cymbal (Jon's legendary 22-inch Turkish-Z), with expository snare and accenting bass drum....not what the uninitiated thinks of as jazz, but swinging, never repeating, and always implying a pulse. I'd never heard this kind of free-jazz-groove before. Multi- tracked swell of bowed electric cello-bass - tenor sax like a voice from the sky. Not bebop. No free-blowing....but clearly based on a few strange but beautiful harmonic transitions, about which the players have a heated discussion, which I got to listen in upon. Think I'm being too dramatic? Read other descriptions of this tune, this album, online, here on PA.

Lots of highlights...huge variety. The alien meeting of "Visitation". Free-funk dialogue of drums and 12-string...just a musical event, comes and goes; feels like walking in on the middle of two guys telling each other inside jokes, and then they spot you, and leave. Nimbus: gorgeous, stunning melody, intro'd on guitar, joined and flute, building tension, repeated, tension dropping back, until the whole group comes in, flute shifting to wailing sax, drums dancing around a 6/8 time interspersed with dramatic cadences in 3 and 4, half-time, double time. Weber getting sounds you never heard of - resembling both fretless bass, orchestral cello and bass fiddle - Jaco playing ambient, sometimes with a bow, while meditating on Bartok. Back to flute. There's more...no point in describing everything you're likely to experience in your own way.

This might open a new door for you, as it did for me. Ralph Towner is my favorite musician, period. He says things no one else says, in a language you never learned, understand intuitively, but would need decades to analyze for both content and aesthetics. He improvises fluently in chords no one else would use, alternating with finger-style virtuoso runs, harmonics, internal counterpoint, sometimes melodic and sometimes otherworldly and dissonant. He says it on two kinds of guitar, world-class piano playing, trumpet and French horn, and synthesizer (sounds strange for this singular acoustic voice to have been drawn to a Prophet 5 synth ( little later in his career, solo and with Oregon), but if you listen carefully, you'll hear it is an extension of his voice, his ideas about both substance and atmosphere). Towner also plays jazz standards, in a beautiful way....but with that unmistakable voice.

Eberhard Weber, now permanently retired due to a stroke (but creative enough to have chosen his favorite live bass solos and turning them into GOOD compositions opened up by Garbarek and others - see John Kelman's review of "Resume" on All About Jazz), made a point of sounding like no other bassist, ever. His own "Colours of Chloe" was, quietly, the inauguration of a whole new kind of jazz-prog-classical synthesis, which changed the ears and the stylistic choices of creative musicians and listeners around the world. A whole separate river of fusion.

Garbarek has moved through every style from free, Ayler-Coltrane blowing, to ruminative Scandinavian-folk-inspired compositions - which have disappointed many fans of his more open playing, but which, too, are their own aesthetic - and Garbarek's tone and harmonic ideas have created a whole-'nuther aesthetic for the sax, apart from bebop, hard-bop, free, or fusion.....it is its own thing, and many younger saxophonists have taken up that basic idea, no longer sounding like Parker, Rollins, Coleman, Shorter, or 'Trane devotees.

Christensen, too, cannot be mistaken for anyone else....his is a true voice, and philosophy, of time and rhythm. He swings fine, burns nicely, but has no ego at all. Time could be, as he once said, walking into a club on Tuesday, hitting the ride, and going back next Tuesday, and hitting it again. Drum-sounds are sounds, and colors, and ideas, and time - time not always being regular, or slow, or fast, like water isn't, and sometimes they are what we think of as familiar drumming. You might not have heard of him, but a large minority of creative drummers cite him as an influence or inspiration.

So, end of essay. This album was the beginning of my adult musical life. I can listen to Towner any time, any aspect of what he does. He never fails me. The connections between him, and the other three, and hundreds of other great and diverse players from around the world, in every style, have created a whole world of music options. Really progressive, but with different ingredients and references. And Genesis and Yes and the rest are still there, part of my diet. But please, start with Solstice, listen carefully, a few times at least, and then connect the dots to other albums, artists. Lots of us have had this "conversion".

toddbashee | 5/5 |

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