Ralph Towner

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Anthem Review

by Thom Jurek

On this solo recording, Ralph Towner returns to the elementary sounds of his classical and 12-string guitars for inspiration. Though an accomplished pianist, French horn, and trumpet player, Towner has left all of them out of Anthem's stark mix. And it's a good thing too. There was a time when his love of the Prophet V synthesizer and his piano improvisations covered over the gracefulness of his trademark signature on the guitar. Anthem begins with "Solitary Woman," for 12-string. It's based on modal intervals and harmonics. His sense of drama in the piece is remarkable; coming from a melodic framework and building an architecture of trills and single-string runs, he then evolves the piece into a chordal spiral, where semitones fall off in rows until only the melody remains -- skeletal, icy, crystalline. On the title track, he uses the classical guitar to create a riff-based structure, adding one element and then another, quoting from "Greensleeves" in one section until he has harmonically changed the entire structure of the tune's body, creating an almost Renaissance melody from its framework. Anthem reveals Towner in the role of being a composer for the guitar rather than of music. For example, City of Eyes, which was for an ensemble, relied both on composition and improvisation to offer a view of the album as something resembling a film score. Anthem has no such aspirations, but it's a far loftier album. These precise, moving, and technically virtuostic compositions have flair and depth to them; they accentuate the voices of these two guitars as solo instruments capable of carrying the most complex musical issues to the fore and resolving them. But above all, as the compositions "The Lutemaker," "Very Late," "The Prowler," "Gloria's Step," and "Three Comments" make plainly clear, Towner writes with great aesthetic beauty and settles for nothing less as a player. If there was ever any doubt of the latter being true, one need only hear the album's closing track, Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Towner proves a consummate jazzman; his sensitivity to a complex melodic and harmonic work is instinctual. In fact, his reading of this tune is the most significant version heard on the instrument thus far -- and there have been many. Indeed, Anthem is Towner's finest album in a decade and one of the finest in his distinguished career.

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