While perhaps best known for his work in the 70s and 80s with the still-occasionally-active group Oregon, guitarist and composer Ralph Towner also has a rich solo career that includes collaborations with Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Kenny Wheeler, and Jan Garbarek, among others, and duet projects with Gary Burton, John Abercrombie and Gary Peacock.
Regardless of the setting, Towner has made his mark, both playing and writing, with consistently smart, expressive and elegant work. Here, in trumpeter Paolo Fresu, Towner has a partner with the sensibility, technique and imagination to match.
The material in Chiaroscuro includes old and new music by Towner, a couple of improvisations and the Bill Evans – Miles Davis classic “Blue in Green.” The pair approaches each piece as a conversation, with seemingly as much emphasis on listening as in playing, taking their time for the music to unfold, leaving open spaces, responding to ideas with ideas. As for timbre variations, Towner and Fresu employ five instruments in all — classical guitar, 12 string guitar and baritone guitar (tuned a fifth below the standard classical), trumpet, and flugelhorn — in various combinations and they make the most of them.
These are players who frame their lyricism in restraint. In their approach, small gestures matter, sound matters. A quick run, a leap up, a strummed chord on steel strings can become game-changing events. They also know how to create a sense of urgency (check “Punta Giara,” or “Doubled Up”) or uncork spiky, freewheeling improvisations (as in the jagged-edged “Two Miniatures” and the mysterious-sounding “Postlude”).
But the highlights here are “Wistful Thinking,” an example of thoughtful, patient storytelling, and their take on “Blue in Green,” in which Fresu’s approach and vibrato-less tone sound like a fitting tribute to Miles, at once original and evocative. Also, consider tracks such as “Sacred Places,” appearing in two versions — first as a solo piece, with the resonant baritone guitar sounding custom-made for the chorale-like main theme. The second, featuring Fresu, takes on an elegiac quality. (The baritone reappears on “Doubled Up,” the closest to a straight-up jazz piece in the set, with Towner suggesting bass lines and providing rhythmic and harmonic punctuation.)
It might sound like a quaint notion but Chiaroscuro reminds us that, yes, in music such basics as intelligence, great playing and having a story to tell still count.