“Chiaroscuro” introduces a new duo and a rare instrumental combination – trumpet and acoustic guitar. The repertoire: a programme of old and new Ralph Towner compositions and duo improvisations, plus an old Miles Davis favourite, its presence a key to the musical priorities at work here.
The album was recorded last autumn in Udine, but the story of the Towner/Fresu alliance really begins further South, at a festival in Sardinia, 15 years ago. Towner had been commissioned to write music for a local ensemble. Fresu was its trumpeter. “I didn’t know him at all then,” Ralph recalls, “but from the very first phrase that he played, I thought: ‘This guy really understands melodies!’ And I thought there and then that we should do some more work together.”
The composition played that night, “Punta Giara”, resurfaces here in rearranged form, along with pieces shaped especially for this album, including the title track, a study in strong contrasts. The atmospheric “Sacred Place”, heard in two versions, and “Doubled Up” bring Towner’s new baritone guitar to the fore. Tuned a fifth below his classical concert guitar it allows him new flexibility in the low range, and the freedom to be, effectively, his own bassist on the clever “Doubled Up”, the most overtly jazz-like of the new tunes. .“’Doubled up’ has many meanings, of course, including doubled up with laughter. Here the theme is sequenced, so to speak, the events happen twice, each theme ‘doubled’ by the two players.”
Two pieces from Ralph’s ECM back-catalogue are revisited: “Wistful Thinking (originally heard as a solo piece on “Open Letter”, in 1992), and “Zephyr” (first scored for the band Oregon on 1987’s “Ecotopia”).
Of the subtle account of “Blue In Green”, Towner says., “I’d always wanted to do that song with a trumpet.” Paolo Fresu’s clear, vibratoless sound acknowledges its debt to Miles. Fresu has always been forthright about his formative influences (his bold remaking of “Porgy and Bess” in 2001 being a case in point). For Towner, as for so many musicians, “Kind of Blue” was a pivotal recording: “The whole ensemble was amazing, but especially Miles and the great Bill Evans working together - my favourite musicians of all time, in the improvising sphere.”
The album concludes with “Two Miniatures” and “Postlude”, improvisations that put the spotlight on the 12.string guitar, extending an approach that had worked well on Ralph’s solo albums “Anthem” and “Time Line”. “I like to do these free things – well ‘free’ is really a misnomer. The same compositional process is at work, but you only get one shot at it.”
Born 1940 in Washington, Towner played trumpet and french horn early on, and began his jazz career as both pianist and guitarist. In the late 1960s/early1970s he accompanied a wide variety of musicians, from Freddie Hubbard to Tim Hardin, from Stan Getz to Airto Moreira, and co-founded the band Oregon, which still continues more than three decades later. His appearance on Weather Report’s “I Sing The Body Electric” in 1971 first brought him to the attention of international record critics. In 1972 he began to record for ECM. His recordings for the label have included solo albums, duo projects (with John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock, Gary Burton), bands under his direction (including the much-loved Solstice with Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, Jon Christensen), and the co-operative Oregon group. He has also contributed to albums by Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler and Egberto Gismonti, and guested wiith the group Azimuth. .
Since graduating from the Cagliari Conservatory in 1984 Fresu (born 1961) has played on some 300 albums. His discs as a leader have received many awards, as has Fresu himself – including the French “Django d’Or” as Best European Musician in 1996. He has played with a wide cast of musicians, inside and outside Italy, including Enrico Rava, Antonello Salis, Enrico Pieranunzi, Giorgio Gaslini, Gianluigi Trovesi, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen, Gerry Mulligan, David Liebman, Dave Holland, Richard Beirach, John Zorn, John Abercrombie, Helen Merril, Richard Galliano, Michel Portal, Trilok Gurtu, Jeanne Lee, Gunther Schüller, Paul McCandless, Jim Hall, Lew Soloff, Uri Caine, Gil Evans, Toots Thielemans... He has often guested with orchestras and big bands including the Grande Orchestra Italiana, the French National Jazz Orchestra, the NDR Big Band and the Italian Instabile Orchestra.
Carla Bley wrote an album specifically to showcase Fresu’s trumpet sound: “The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu”, issued on the ECM associated WATT label in 2007“, Chiaraoscuro” is the trumpeter’s first recording for ECM proper.
Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu appear at the upcoming ECM Festival “Der Blaue Klang” in Mannheim Castle on October 24. Other tour dates include: Modena(December 7), Milan (December 8), Lugano (December 9), Oslo (December 11), Vienna (December 12), Neuburg an der Donau (December 13), Schiltigheim (December 14), Zürich (December 15), San Lazzaro (December 16), Poggibonsi (February 18), Neuötting (February 20), Barcelona (February 23), Turin (February 25), Roccabianca (February 27), Wroclaw (March 1). More details here. Other dates are in preparation for 2010, including a North American tour.