CD Review: Ralph Towner/John Abercrombie – Five Years Later

Ralph Towner/John Abercrombie – Five Years Later
(ECM 1207.Review by Peter Marsh)

I’m probably not the only one to have been slightly puzzled by ECM’s reissue schedule over the last couple of decades, but even so, I was surprised to note that this is the first time on CD for this album, which originally emerged in 1982. It’s available in the label’s Re:solution series which appears to be designed to highlight some of the previously forgotten gems in the catalogue, which have all been remastered, and issued on vinyl and as downloads too.

This was the second duet date for guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, recorded (you guessed it) five years after the first, Sargasso Sea. That record marked a bit of a watershed for Abercrombie, who’d previously been mainly heard in slightly more robust, high energy settings alongside Dave Liebman, Billy Cobham and The Gateway Trio with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. Sargasso Sea had been a delicate and introspective affair, but saved from mere pastel prettiness by the duo’s improvisational empathy and in particular Towner’s surprisingly muscular touch on both 12-string and classical guitar.

Five Years Later covers much the same territory, though unlike its predecessor it features less multitracking and Towner leaves the piano at home. The opening Late Night Passenger begins with suspended, lush atmospherics from Abercrombie’s electric guitar, overlaid with Towner’s bittersweet ruminations on his nylon strung instrument which shift from sweetly melodic cascades to spiky chromaticism. He then kicks in with a surprising, buzzing mbira-like figure and Abercrombie takes over for the last half. Two other pieces are similarly sketchy and presumably mostly improvised – the abstract miniature Microtheme and the slightly meandering 12 string and electric duet of the unfortunately titled Bumabia .

The more composed pieces offer the listener (and the players) a bit more to engage with. Abercrombie’s Isla features 12 string and electric in a beautifully poised duet that recalls the best moments of Sargasso Sea, while his closing Child’s Play, an angular, freewheeling ballad, sounds like it could have been included on the overlooked Characters album. Towner’s compositions are more restless; the entirely acoustic Half Past Two and The Juggler’s Etude inspire some quicksilver interplay from the duo – this is the closest they get to shredding or anything like it. Caminata is the only tune to feature overdubs as far as I can hear, its stately and relatively straightforward melancholia shaded with watercolour swells of electric guitar.

Throughout the duo swap the roles of accompanist and soloist seamlessly. Towner’s comping is pin-sharp, almost funky, oscillating between tension and release. It’s hard to think of anyone else who plays acoustic guitar with such unsentimentality and precision, and Abercrombie makes an ideal partner for him. If you haven’t got it, I’d recommend Sargasso Sea over this one. But for fans and those interested in the guitar, it’s near-enough essential. They should do another.

Categories: miscellaneous

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