THE INTIMACY OF THE DUO SETTING HAS LONG
appealed to classical and 12-string guitar virtuoso
Ralph Towner. During his expansive fourdecade
career, he’s released several adventurous
duo albums with jazz luminaries including electric
guitarist John Abercrombie, vibraphonist Gary
Burton, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and bassist
Gary Peacock. His latest release, Chiaroscuro
[ECM], is a gorgeous pairing with Italian trumpeter
Paolo Fresu continuing that proclivity.
The exquisite, jazz-oriented disc finds Towner
and Fresu exploring new and earlier Towner compositions.
It also features two improvised pieces
and a cover of the Miles Davis and Bill Evans classic
“Blue in Green.” Additionally, the album presents
the first recordings of Towner performing on
baritone guitar, an instrument that allowed him
to open up fresh sonic vistas and further extend
his already impressive compositional palette.
Towner’s pieces also take center stage on From
a Dream [Material], the first recording by MGT,
his new trio with classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan
and jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. It’s
one of the most unique guitar trios to emerge in
recent years, unifying three distinct voices, jazz
and classical elements, and acoustic and electric
instruments into a singular statement.
The year 2010 sees Towner hitting some significant
milestones. He turns 70 in March, yet
shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down. And
his group Oregon, a pioneering act that combines
jazz, world, and classical music, celebrates its
40th anniversary. The band, also featuring reedsman
Paul McCandless, bassist Glen Moore, and percussionist Mark Walker, will soon record its
26th album for release later in the year.
Towner and Fresu are taking Chiaroscuro on
the road in the USA and Europe starting in February.
MGT and Oregon are also making select
live appearances during the year.
What made working with Fresu so appealing to you?
Paolo and I first played together 15 years ago
at a jazz festival in Sardinia. I was commissioned
to write a piece for a Sardinian group he played
trumpet in. The piece was half ethnic Sardinian
music and half jazz. As soon as he started playing
the melody of the tune, I was taken by how
good he sounded, and I made a mental note that
I wanted to use him on a project. It took 15 years,
but the opportunity finally came up. I was debating
what to do as my next release after three solo
guitar CDs in a row, and the clarity and flexibility
of the duo format was appealing to me. Paolo
remained in the forefront of my mind for that. I
was debating whether or not to have a rhythm
section, but realized that I really didn’t need it,
because working with Oregon satisfies my band
needs. As the guitarist in the duo, I get to cover
the rhythm roles, and I also cover some of the
piano roles, all of which I enjoy doing. The album
contains a link to the first time Paolo and I played
together, on “Punta Giara,” which is the jazz half
of the piece we initially collaborated on.
I understand the unique chemistry you share with
Fresu is informed by your shared love of Miles Davis’
We definitely have a real connection through
Miles’ output and his approach. And because I’m
also a piano player, I have a really special connection with Miles’ keyboardists, especially Herbie
Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Victor
Feldman. Of course, there’s the trumpet
playing, too. Paolo is always moved by Miles
and is influenced by him, as most trumpet
players are. Paolo is a very lyrical player and
his sense of phrasing is wonderful. One of
the great things about the chemistry in a jazz
duo is there’s a lot of leeway in how you
phrase and respond. You’re both composing
and inventing as you improvise. It’s very
interactive without anyone having a fixed
Your first instrument was the trumpet. Provide
a snapshot of that experience.
I have a sense of the instrument, having
started playing it at age 6. It belongs to my
musical history and life. It’s why I’ve always
said somebody with a sensibility like Miles
would be able to fit very well with my type
of guitar playing. By the time I was 12, I was
playing jazz, swing, and dance music in several
bands, and I kept playing trumpet
throughout high school in the ’50s. It was
quite an exposure to jazz and it felt like a
natural instrument for me. But when I went
to university, I didn’t want to be in a marching
band. I wanted to become a composition
student and shifted to piano, later also incorporating
a guitar focus. That’s what I am: a
piano player who plays guitar. It’s always
been my approach to the instrument. My
experience with the trumpet isn’t what necessarily
drew me to using Paolo, because a
successful duo depends solely on the players’
creativity. In some ways the instrument
is secondary. But the trumpet is an instrument
I’ve always enjoyed hearing.
Describe the creative process that drove the
pieces you wrote and adapted for the new album.
The most important thing for me was to
have a picture of the areas in which I thought
Paolo should be comfortable. He’s more of
a jazz musician than a classical one, so I
wanted to compose music that reflects the
Miles Davis aspect of his playing. I also
wanted the music to take advantage of the
touch of melancholy that naturally occurs in
Paolo’s playing. In addition, we chose to
include music that wasn’t totally based on
a bebop swing feel. So, there’s some music
that we did rubato, meaning we weren’t playing
in a strict time feel. There are also a couple
of older compositions that I adapted for
the duo format. I’ve always felt that if a piece
of music is good, it should work with any
instrument. I had to adjust some of the earlier
compositions via octaves to keep them
within the range of the trumpet. A lot of the
tunes I wrote specifically for Paolo were done
on my new baritone guitar, which is tuned
a fifth below a normal guitar. So those pieces
have a really different flavor.
Who made your baritone guitar?
An Australian luthier named Graham
Caldersmith built the instrument. It looks
like a great big guitar, with a long string
length and neck. It’s quite a stretch to play
in the first position. The unique thing about
the instrument is that the bracing underneath
the top is made of carbon-covered balsa
wood, which is very strong, yet very light.
So the top is quite thin. I can feel it vibrate
when I play, and the instrument has tremendous
What new territories does it enable you to
I like the fact that I can’t play the same chord voicings I typically would on a regular
classical guitar, because everything
sounds so low. It makes normal voicings
sound too blurry, so I had to write music
specifically for that instrument, taking into
account that it gets muddy when you play
close intervals down too low. It alters how
I approach things and lets me create big,
open voicings with wonderful resonance.
You can hear it particularly on the piece
called “Sacred Place.”
What other guitars did you play on Chiaroscuro?
I used my old faithful classical guitar
made by Jeffrey Elliott and Cyndy Burton.
It was built in 1995, using East Indian
rosewood and European spruce. It’s the
most perfectly balanced guitar I’ve ever
played. You always know exactly how loud
every note on every fret in every register
will be when you pluck it. There aren’t any
notes that jump out unexpectedly. It’s like
playing a very well-voiced Steinway piano
when you hit a bunch of notes in unison
and want them to all be exactly the same
volume. It gives me so much control over
dynamics. I also like the tone of the instrument.
It’s very lyrical and warm, while still
being very clear.
I’m also playing my custom Guild 12-
string with a Fishman under-saddle pickup
that was made for me 40 years ago. It has a
very wide classical neck so the strings aren’t
too crowded together like on most 12-strings.
It’s also made of rosewood and spruce, with
a cutaway that makes it easy to play. It’s a
really beautiful-sounding instrument that’s
well balanced, and has exceptional tone.
Describe your unique 12-string technique.
I play it differently from everyone else. I
press the double strings down and try to
pluck them as much at the same time as possible.
I use an angle across the strings rather
than plucking from a 90-degree angle like
many players. That lets me avoid the sort of
“ba-dup” double sound that’s typical of 12-
string guitars. I’m always pushing to make
use of my classical right-hand technique on
it. It’s tough on my fingernails, but it’s one
of the reasons it sounds distinctive when I
play the instrument. The 12-string doesn’t
have a real tradition in the jazz world at all.
I use it within the genre because I can create
interesting overtones that are closer to
those of a harpsichord.
Is it a challenge to write for and perform with
two other guitarists in the MGT trio?
It really is, because two guitarists can
pretty much cover everything, so the trick
is integrating the third guitarist. I also had the task of writing for a fourth guitarist
recently. The Eos Guitar Quartet from
Switzerland commissioned me to contribute
a piece called “Dawn to Dusk” to the group’s
new 20+/20th Anniversary album. When writing
for three or four guitarists I sometimes
take the approach of writing single lines for
each one. In MGT, the third guitar always
works well because typically I’m playing my
Elliott-Burton classical or Guild 12-string
and Slava Grigoryan is playing his classical
guitar, and we’re handling the fixed melodic
and accompaniment parts. The third part is
often Wolfgang’s territory. He’ll use the same
harmonies, but not play specific, pre-defined
music on his electric guitar. The roles also
sometimes get passed around in terms of
who’s playing melodies and who’s soloing.
I really love MGT. Slava and Wolfgang are
both just fantastic people and the group really
lets me cover a lot of bases in terms of jazz,
classical, and improvisation.