John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner have forever been tied to the ECM roster as leaders and individualists, and initially it was hard to imagine their styles being compatible. As an amplified electric guitarist, Abercrombie's steely, sometime unearthly sound was an uneven puzzle piece alongside the graphic, stoic, classically oriented style of Towner. Yet on Sargasso Sea, there are several instances where they merge together as one, feeling their way through pure improvisations, angular and colorful motifs, or thematic nuances and a certain strata of consciousness that makes a world of common sense. There are selections where they both play acoustic guitars, but it is mostly Abercrombie's hopped up sound through an amp over Towner's bold and beautiful unplugged instrument, tossing in a piano overdubbed on two tracks. Where selections such as "Fable" are folksy and far from overwrought, "Avenue" lopes gracefully and the exceptional "Parasol" is semi-lyrical. Abercrombie's guitar stands in stark contrast on the near macabre title track, and more so during "Elbow Room" with heavier moans, cries, vibrato, echoplex slide incursions, and Towner as an afterthought. The best track "Staircase," with twin acoustic guitars, sports tricky intricate lines and changes only virtuosi can achieve. In laid-back surrender for "Romantic Descension," and in passive voicings on "Over & Gone," Towner need not strain to make his brilliant voice heard clearly. An uneven recording for many listeners and critics, Sargasso Sea deserves a second chance, not as an absolutely flawed, imperfect, or unbalanced effort. Like a tale of two cities, it stands as a unique project, perhaps deserving a more refined approach. Though there was a follow-up album released, a third-time's-the-charm contemporary revisit from these masterful guitar geniuses would be welcome.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos