|Ralph Towner at Pizza Express Soho
Photo credit: Mary James
Ralph Towner Solo
(Pizza Express Soho, 2 November 2017. Review by Mary James)
Solo concerts could be seen as a challenge for both audience and artist alike – feats of intense and wearing concentration on both sides. But if that artist is Ralph Towner the experience is unforgettable and richly rewarding, and one that all artists contemplating a solo show could learn from. Towner performed with his classical guitar, his set list on a slip of paper, no electronics in sight, tuning his guitar by ear – a stripped-down setup that provided maximum emotional intensity and clarity of sound to which the packed house gave rapt attention.
Most of the compositions were from My Foolish Heart, Towner’s recent album on ECM, but the set list included some deeply-felt standards such as I Fall in Love Too Easily, older compositions such as If and a brand new, unfinished and untitled piece. Talking to the audience comes naturally to Towner. We learned that Towner owns two “dreadful street cats” at whom a visiting house-sitter had to throw shoes in order to stop them fighting. That house-sitter was John Abercrombie, whose beautiful Ralph’s Piano Waltz provided a poignant reminder of a wonderful partnership.
Making it look and sound easy is of course not unique to Towner, but sometimes it sounded as if there were two guitars on stage having a conversation, delicate shading and louder tone at the same time, pauses and starts weaving naturally. His reference to, and reverence for, the impact of Bill Evans (My Foolish Heart in particular) on all players of his generation offered an insight into his technique and life’s work. His left hand barely grazed the strings, all his movements graceful, whether playing jaunty tunes such as Saunter or the contemplative I’ll Sing to You.
If he thought he could end his set on a superlative Nardis he was wrong – Towner seemed genuinely surprised we called for an encore. The serpentine trek from green room to stage via crowded tables provided sufficient time to select the Tudor-sounding The Reluctant Bride. And his human side showed yet again when he stopped after a minute, lost in thought, and started the tune again. We didn’t mind, it gave us longer with him, our own foolish hearts warmed by his humanity.
Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with John Law and others. Twitter @maryleamington