Ralph Towner: “At First Light”
ECM Records / Universal Music
Format: 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV download
Ralph Alessi Quartet: “It’s Always Now”
ECM Records / Universal Music
Format: 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV download
Although ECM Records has released its share of music by European jazz musicians, the label has also given exposure to American musicians since it was established by Manfred Eicher in 1969. The label’s first release was pianist Mal Waldron’s Free at Last (1970). Keith Jarrett’s solo piano recordings for the label increased his popularity and ensured the label’s financial viability, and his Standards Trio recordings with ECM reaffirmed his place in the jazz pantheon. Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Charles Lloyd, and Peter Erskine all made fine recordings for ECM.
American multi-instrumentalist Ralph Towner is known primarily as a guitarist, and he’s been with ECM since 1972. Over those 50 years, he has recorded duet albums with Gary Burton, Gary Peacock, and John Abercrombie, and with larger groups that included Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler, and other musicians on ECM’s roster. His discography on ECM also includes many outings on solo guitar, such as his last album, 2017’s My Foolish Heart. His latest recording for ECM is another collection of solo performances: At First Light.
Towner has occasionally used overdubbing in his solo recordings, but At First Light follows the pattern of Anthem (2001), Time Line (2006), and My Foolish Heart by presenting Towner’s guitar with no such enhancement. He plays a nylon-stringed classical guitar on all of the tracks, eight of which he composed. All 11 are demonstrations of Towner’s masterly command of the guitar, which often shows as much influence from the classical-guitar world as it does from jazz.
The chord voicings of Towner’s “Flow” reflect both genres. The guitarist’s fingerstyle playing shows his classical training, and the tune has a baroque-era feel at times. The melodies unfold easily, and Towner injects staccato lines that vary the force of the piece from time to time. “Straight” is a more modern and jazz-inflected composition, with hints of Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins, and other popular songwriters. Towner lists some of these influences in the biographical notes he penned for the CD booklet that accompanies At First Light.
“Make Someone Happy,” a Betty Comden / Adolph Green / Jule Styne song from the 1960 musical Do Re Mi, brings out Towner’s jazz side in its chord progressions and phrasing. The melody sings out, with chords filling in around it and low-note runs creating a firm grounding. Towner refers to his “blend of keyboard and guitar technique” in the liner notes, and the nylon-string guitar allows for a more dynamic approach than if it were steel-strung. Quieter passages still have a full tone, and more forceful lines have greater impact.
“Ubi Sunt” is a Latin phrase meaning “Where are they?” It refers to a series of medieval poems that examine life’s passing and death’s inevitability. Towner’s composition evokes a sense of spiritual contemplation, and his playing creates a feeling of calm beauty. The track that follows it, “Guitarra Picante,” brings things back to earth; the tune’s jaunty, danceable joy is buoyed along by a bossa nova rhythm and a strong, ear-grabbing melody.
I wouldn’t have thought another version of “Danny Boy” was necessary, but Towner provides a reminder that even such a widely covered tune can be revisited and renewed. Towner’s technique is often astonishing on At First Light, but he’s not given to empty displays. His command of the guitar makes his own songs come alive, and Towner also respects the intentions of other composers.
At the age of 82, Towner still records and appears with Oregon, the group he and other members of the Paul Winter Consort formed in 1970. At First Light is the work of a musician who is still vital and creative, and at the top of his game.
Trumpet player and composer Ralph Alessi’s first release for ECM was a quartet recording, Baida (2013). Since 1994, Alessi has been a contributor to sessions for many other musicians, including Don Byron, Sam Rivers, and Ravi Coltrane, and has released 12 albums as a leader on various labels. It’s Always Now is his fourth such album for ECM. The other members of the quartet on this album are Florian Weber on piano, Bänz Oester on double bass, and Gerry Hemingway on drums.
Alessi’s compositions balance lyricism and an avant-garde experimental edge, and the combination makes him a logical fit for ECM. He and Weber wrote “Hypnagogic,” which they perform as a duet. Weber’s minor-key arpeggios flow around Alessi’s trumpet, which begins with a single note that repeats with the aid of a digital delay. Alessi begins to play trumpet lines that are halting and dark at moments; as the piece takes shape, his playing retains the dark hue as it becomes clearer and draws to a logical conclusion.
Alessi’s pure tone states the theme on “Old Baby”—another duet with Weber, whose chord progressions help shape the trumpeter’s shifts in tone and feel. Alessi alternates between cleanly played quick bursts and long, sustained notes that he sometimes bends and reshapes to create an emotional pull. Alessi and Weber appear on three additional tracks as a duo, including the title track. The pieces are spontaneous improvisations that are bracing and unpredictable, with potent shifts in mood and tone.
The quartet plays on the remaining eight tracks. Hemingway’s brush work and light kick-drum hits set the pace for “Migratory Party,” and Weber enters with an alternating major and minor chord pattern that gives Alessi’s melodic ideas room to expand. Oester starts with a simple bass line that becomes more rhythmically supple and more interactive with Alessi and Weber as the song develops. Hemingway’s drumming also becomes more colorful and expressive.
“The Shadow Side” and “Diagonal Lady” are both contemplative pieces. Hemingway’s subtle drum shadings give “The Shadow Side” a subdued intensity, and he responds easily to the minute changes in direction and feel by Weber and Alessi. Oester’s bass lines in “Diagonal Lady” move with ease behind Alessi’s improvisational flights, helping anchor them while Weber weaves a complex array of chords.
“Residue” is the most exuberant song on It’s Always Now. Hemingway starts with a series of rolls on his tom drums, and Weber and Oester soon join in a pattern that is joyful and swinging. Alessi plays a relaxed, happy line, and the tune bounces along before moving into an intense, spiky section—Weber provides a lyrical, high-energy solo, which is accompanied by Alessi’s probing, thoughtful improvisations.
“The Shadow Side” is a gorgeous ballad that shows the group’s versatility and Alessi’s ability to compose memorable tunes. “His Hopes, His Fears, His Tears” is more angular and edgy, but accessible even when it veers into free improvisation. “Hanging by a Thread,” the album’s longest track at nearly nine minutes, also has moments of fiery, near-anarchic back and forth, especially in a section where Weber and Hemingway exchange ideas, pushing each other forward. Alessi soon joins in, and what at first seems like chaos soon coheres, with notes speeding past but combining in a unified message.
Manfred Eicher produced both sessions, and Stefano Amerio recorded them. Ralph Towner recorded At First Light at Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano, Switzerland. Ralph Alessi’s quartet played the music on It’s Always Now at Amerio’s Artesuono studio in Italy. The level of detail in both recordings served the music wonderfully. I could hear the sound of Towner’s fingers moving across the strings on At First Light and the full tonal spectrum of his guitar. I had no trouble placing Alessi’s horn or each of Hemingway’s drums in the soundstage on It’s Always Now. The harmonic richness of the piano’s sound gave body to the music, and Oester’s bass was well focused and full of energy.
These two releases were equally engaging, both as performances and as recordings that immersed me in the creative processes of the musicians. Even after more than 50 years, ECM continues to present challenging and vital music.
. . . Joseph Taylor