Ralph Towner/Gary PeacockA Closer ViewECM 1602 CD 531 623-2
A Closer View is the successor to 1993's Oracle (ECM 1490), a record described by Downbeat as "charming and thoughtful, conveying the familiarity and empathy of partners who have worked together for years. Towner and Peacock share a deep interest in Bill Evans' music, which manifests itself in the light touch, intricacy, and sensitivity that pervade the session." Oracle was initiated as Peacock's project and featured primarily the bassist's compositions. A Closer View reverses the formula, highlighting Towner's pieces. There are seven new tunes from the guitarist and three off-the-cuff joint compositions in a programme completed by one Peacock "classic", the song "Moor" - previously heard on the third album released by ECM, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, and again on the bassist's 1981 recording Voice from the Past - Paradigm.
Not enough has been said about Towner as a writer, perhaps because his craftsmanship - grounded long ago in composition studies at the University of Oregon - consistently blurs distinctions between the improvised and the pre-structured. "I've put enough study into both areas that I work in both areas in a total way," he told Mark Mushet, editor of the e-mail publication Open Letter. "I do completely composed pieces and completely improvised pieces - and pieces that are partially composed and partially improvised. Improvisation is a kind of composition that you do on the fly, but it still has its rules. With improvisation you take a skeletal system and work within it in real time, but often improvised things won't have the real content of a thoroughly composed piece of music. You can improvise two voice lines and it can be very exciting, but if you have the chance to compose something of the same order you can work carefully with the contrary motion and the voice leading and control the tension in the music even more."
It is interesting that when Towner was studying composition he was given many 12-tone assignments, an experience left him with an aversion to music where the means employed is the work's subject; he felt more sympathy for Stravinsky, for example, who in later life used dodecaphony freely and lyrically, rather than with the slide-rule serialists, whose structures he has compared to "French architecture - with the entrails on the outside!" Significantly, part of Towner's art as a guitarist and composer today is concerned with the hiding or masking of "complexity": "The goal for me, in almost every situation, is to try to produce something where the instrument and the difficulty of the piece become secondary." (Towner, moreover, is not "merely" a jazz tunesmith: his orchestral pieces have been performed by, amongst others, the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra, the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Freiburg Festival Orchestra.)
Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock played in trio format through the 1980s with Jerry Granelli and (briefly) Adam Nussbaum as drummers. The trio with Granelli - augmented by Markus Stockhausen and Paul McCandless - recorded for ECM in 1986, the results issued on City of Eyes, but the duo has a greater flexibility and has endured as a popular musical alliance on the international touring circuit. As long ago as 1982, in fact, the Italian critic Riccardo Sgualdini, in a far-sighted review for Musica Jazz, suggested that this was an optimum amalgamation of musical talents: "Towner and Peacock are real maestri of acoustic music. They share the same sense of breath, the same feeling, the same rigorous self-control." "It is a wonderful combination," Towner agrees. "It's very clear, and Gary is rhythmically so powerful - really inspiring to play with." As England's Independent on Sunday put it, "Peacock's ability to combine the soulfulness of Charles Mingus with the virtuosity of Scott LaFaro makes him probably the world's most expressive double-bassist. His remarkable qualities reinvigorate the playing of Towner, whose mastery of the guitar is equally extraordinary. Their intricate acoustic dialogues may be quiet, but they're never less than full-blooded." Towner's phrasing, curiously, also has something in common with LaFaro's, while Downbeat has suggested that "Peacock is a guitarist at heart, who happens to play bass violin." It is not uncommon, in their duets, for the participants to reverse roles and registers.
Best known today as the bassist with Keith Jarrett's enormously successful "Standards Trio", Gary Peacock has a long history in the music, his resumé distinguished by its completeness. His ability to deal with approaches to improvisation that most players would consider mutually exclusive is legendary. This, after all, is the bassist who went from the Bill Evans Trio to the Albert Ayler Trio. He has also worked with Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, John Gilmore, Tony Williams, Gil Evans, Ravi Shankar and many others. In the late 1960s, Peacock dropped out of the music scene and lived for some years in Japan, studying oriental medicine and philosophy. His return to playing and recording was encouraged by ECM; his first album as a leader for the label was 1977's Tales of Another (with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette). Other ECM Peacock recordings include December Poems (solo bass album with cameo appearances by Jan Garbarek), Shift In The Wind (with Art Lande and Eliot Zigmund), Voice from the Past (with Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko, and DeJohnette), and Guamba (with Garbarek, Palle Mikkelborg, and Peter Erskine). He has, additionally, appeared on ECM albums with Bill Connors (Of Mist and Melting) and Markus Stockhausen (Cosi Lontano...Quasi Dentro) as well as on the Jarrett Trio's vast recorded legacy, documented thus far on a total of 20 CDs (including the prize-winning 6-CD set, At the Blue Note).
A Closer View is Ralph Towner's 18th album for ECM under his own name (there are another three with the group Oregon, plus guest appearances with Keith Jarrett, Azimuth, Kenny Wheeler and Egberto Gismonti). Amongst those recordings duets have proven a particularly successful medium for the guitarist and A Closer View joins a select group of albums that includes, in addition to Oracle, two records with John Abercrombie (Sargasso Sea and Five Years Later) and two with Gary Burton (Matchbook and Slide Show). Perhaps the strength of each of these is its generosity; Towner is seldom a "competitive" soloist. He stated his intentions long ago and has been faithful to them: "The thing I'm most interested in is to transcend the instrument in a way that makes it sound more like a small orchestra. There seems to me to be an orchestral way of expressing yourself on a small instrument by implying a lot." This philosophy has benefited not only his own playing, but has always served to enhance the contributions of his partners. He gives them space, in brief, and room to breathe. Gary Peacock is of similar mind. As Cadence has observed, "as a technician, Peacock doesn't believe in playing as many notes as possible in the smallest space of time. Rather he believes in what is stated: the tone, mood, and overall atmosphere. He's a musician first, a bassist second."
Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock are touring Europe in February and March, giving concerts in Germany, France (including the Banlieues Bleues Festival), Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Hungary.