Ralph Towner – At First Light
(ECM 2758. Album review by John Arnett)
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Fifty years ago this year, Ralph Towner released his first solo album “Diary”, also on ECM and produced, as is this one, by Manfred Eicher. On the earlier album Towner plays both classical and 12 string guitars as well as piano (he is a conservatoire-trained classical pianist) also making use of overdubbing to create a more multi layered sound. Remarkably, he had only started to play the guitar at the age of 22. Five more solo guitar albums followed, the most recent being “My Foolish Heart” in 2017. “At First Light” features just the unadulterated solo classical guitar which he now favours, and it is, by any reckoning, a landmark recording. It is his 25th ECM album as leader.
Of the eleven tracks here, eight are Towner compositions with two showtunes and a traditional melody interspersed, making for a pleasing balance and variety of mood. Interestingly, seven of the eleven were played at his November 2021 Pizza Express show (review link below). The overall sound is spacious and resonant, the playing assured and captivating throughout. At times it is hard to believe that there is only one guitarist playing – for example on the 1991 Oregon tune “Guitarra Picante” and the atmospheric closing piece “Empty Stage”.
“Ubi Sunt” (where are they? ) with its apparently simple, bitter sweet melody, has the feeling of a meditation on the transitory nature of life, especially in the exploratory middle section over a repeated knell-like bass note. “Guitarra Picante” has an irresistible forward motion, adding complexity and embellishment as it progresses, deftly fusing chordal rhythm, bass lines and brilliant exploratory flights in the higher register before returning to the melody.
“Danny Boy” is a real pleasure, managing to add something special to a familiar tune, for example the beautiful harmonic on the highest note of the melody, and generally the consummate chord/melody movement. You want to listen to it over and again. “Fat Foot” is intriguing in a different way – an apparently simple, highly rhythmic earworm of a riff, mid register, full of syncopation and space, perfectly judged at a little over three minutes.
The Hoagy Carmichael tune “Little Old Lady” is a pleasingly jolly addition to the whole, and once again a marvellous, swinging synthesis of chords, bassline and melody, bubbly, infectious and adroitly delivered. The final piece “Empty stage”, with its spirited dialogue of answering lines between treble and bass, has a haunting, valedictory feeling to it as perhaps befits the title, but not, we trust, to be taken too literally. Bravo.
Release Date 17 March 2023