Chiaroscuro – guitar plus trumpet

Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu
ECM Records CD


It’s hard to believe that Ralph Towner is turning seventy this year. Yet his playing remains as vital and expansive as ever on Chiaroscuro, his latest in a series of recordings for the ECM imprint.

Towner and Fresu

The disc is a duo outing with trumpeter Paolo Fresu. At first blush, one might be excused for questioning the wisdom of such a pairing. After all, Towner is known his acoustic guitar-playing; he favors delicate 12-string, baritone, and nylon-string classical guitars. Its easy to imagine him being out gunned by a trumpeter. But Fresu is a musician rightly known for sensitivity. Here, he makes the seemingly improbable – a balanced duo with inherently unbalanced instruments – eminently possible. What’s more, his supple, fluid playing seems ideal for the intricate harmonic shifts and intricately phrased, diaphanous atmospheres of Towner’s compositions.

A case in the point is the title tune, on which Towner and Fresu create a seamless interplay of dovetailing lines. With a true sense of rubato that’s all too elusive in many jazz settings, both have space to create seemingly breathless solos, all the while reacting to one another with dazzling speed.

Another highlight, for guitar solo, is the lovely ballad “Sacred Place.” Towner displays some beautiful classical-style playing with occasional flamenco flourishes. A reprise later on the album adds Fresu, who takes up the main melody, turning it from its former filigreed state to a soaring, sostenuto, and stirringly anthemic presentation.

While most of the music here is composed by Towner, the duo also supplies a beguiling version of the Miles Davis/Bill Evans tune “Blue in Green.” Its gutsy to cover anything from Kind of Blue, but to do so convincingly, with muted trumpet no less, takes both chutzpah and creativity to spare. While more pairings with Towner would be welcome, one hopes that ECM gives Fresu a chance to record as a leader, and soon!

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