Ralph Towner breaks out in more ways than one on City of Eyes. Despite his band Oregon's lagging creative slump and his own obsession with a synthesizer he is only beginning to learn how to "play," Towner cuts some new grooves on this set with an all-star cast. New to Towner's musical universe is drummer/percussionist Jerry Granelli and brass auteur Markus Stockhausen. Even Paul McCandless -- who has spent the better part of the '80s making new age albums -- doesn't muck things up this time out. The opener, "Jamaica Stopover," is Towner's freshest solo guitar piece in ages. It's slippery, has a groove, and is actually rooted in both the blues and gypsy swing. The first ensemble piece, "Cascades," sounds a little florid at the outset, but Granelli's percussive ambience is a cure for the rococo melody (it again reeks of Offramp-period Pat Metheny-ism). Towner kicks it into classical gear on "Les Douzilles," before moving into a hot improv duet with Gary Peacock, who -- believe it -- plays his bass like a guitarist. The fretwork by Towner and the pizzicato by Peacock are among the most intricate, complex, and purely "musical" duets in recent history between the two instruments. This is where Towner shines, when challenged by a musician equal to, or greater than, his own abilities. The entire ensemble plays together on only three selections, the aforementioned "Cascades," the title track, and "Tundra." On the title track the music shifts modally from one series of chamber jazz timbres to another; mood and tempo relentless move throughout the piece's first five minutes, giving a feeling as if it is a free improv piece one moment and something strictly composed for rhythm and meter the next. Harmonically, Towner pianistically creates intervals that offer shades and colors of ambient-like texture. He extends the musical reach of Peacock's bass role by making it of primary importance to the work's lyrical line and its role in the "free" sections. On "Tundra," the focus is on Towner as musical interloper, connecting each player's lines with his riveting 12-string work. The melody comes from minor, augmented chords. Granelli stays in the pocket, painting over the guitar with bells and chimes, but the others engage Towner separately. Stockhausen's contribution is especially noteworthy, as he punctuates each short guitar line with a long, beautiful phrase that is an extended tonality from that of the guitar. In essence, City of Eyes shows Ralph Towner as a musical explorer again, a composer and instrumentalist who can persuasively create aural travelogues through time, space, and terrain.
City of Eyes Review
by Thom Jurek