July 26, 1971, the fourth mission to land humans on the moon was launched from Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Florida. The Apollo 15 mission was one of NASA’s more successful lunar explorations. Commander David Scott and Lunar Rover pilot Jim Irwin logged in over 18 hours on the moon’s surface, while Al Worden orbited the Moon in Command Module “Endeavor”. In addition to a gamma ray spectrometer, a laser altimeter, and 4 by 6 inch flags representing all the UN member nations, “Endeavor’s” payload also included a cassette tape by the Paul Winter Consort. Two of the songs on that cassette were so beloved by the astronauts that they named lunar craters after them. Those songs were written by today’s featured artist, the guitarist and composer Ralph Towner. Back on Earth, one of those songs has gone on to become a certifiable jazz standard. It’s called “Icarus”.
Ralph Towner was born in Washington State in 1940. He came from a musical family, and studied composition at the University of Oregon. In 1963, Towner moved to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit, who was kind of a big wig in the European guitar scene during the Segovia era. Towner describes his guitar style as pianistic, which could very well be a result of his time with Karl Scheit. After a year in Vienna, Towner returned to Oregon for graduate studies in composition. Then another year with Scheit, and finally, in 1968, New York.
By the early seventies, Ralph Towner established himself as a guitarist, keyboardist, and composer, and was keeping some pretty enviable company. His first recordings were with an ensemble called Oregon, which, in addition to Towner, consisted of Paul McCandless on woodwinds, Glen Moore on Bass and Collin Walcott on percussion. Oregon was a blend of so many influences and disciplines, that they’re actually a little hard to describe. They were serious improvisers, great composers, and very much influenced by non-Western musical forms. Oregon’s membership has morphed a bit over the years, but Ralph Towner has remained a constant, and over 40 years since their debut, the band is still performing and putting out great music.
An inveterate collaborator, Towner has contributed to recordings by Weather Report, John Abercrombie, Jan Hammer, and many more. I’m partial to a 1978 project called Sol Do Meio Dia that Towner did with Egberto Gismonti. Gismonti is a legendary Brazilian composer, guitarist and pianist, whose recordings for ECM make up some of the best titles on the label’s impressive catalogue.
Ralph Towner has recorded over forty records under his own name since 1970, many of which on the ECM label. I’m partial to the solo guitar records, particularly a 2005 project called Timeline, which includes “The Lizards of Eraclea,” which Towner describes as “another etude that portrays the energy and persistence of the many lizards found in the south of Sicily.” I mean, if you’re gonna write an etude, it might as well be about lizards…A good portion of Towner’s guitar music has been published by the San Francisco-based company, Guitar Solo Publications, and can be found at gspguitar.com.
In 2001, Ralph Towner and Oregon collaborated with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra on a record called Oregon in Moscow. The project earned four Grammy nominations and I think it really shows off Towner’s gifts as an orchestrator and of course as an improviser.
Research Assistant: Ciyadh Wells.
“Cicadas at the Equinox” from Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane, written and performed by Matthew Cochran
“Apollo 15 launch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVlPGzk5lNc
“Icarus” from Icarus, written by Ralph Towner, performed by the Paul Winter Consort
“Interview Ralph Towner (Oregon)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KSY5d3RwDY
“My Man’s Gone Now” from Timeline, written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, performed by Ralph Towner
“North Star” from Music of Another Present Era, written and performed by Oregon
“Palacio de Pinturas” from Sol Do Meio Dia, written and performed by Egberto Gismonti
“The Lizards of Eraclea” from Timeline, written and performed by Ralph Towner
“Waterwheel” from Oregon in Moscow, written by Ralph Towner, performed by Oregon and the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra
“Always By Your Side” from Timeline, written and performed by Ralph Towner
CORRECTION (9/17/15) I incorrectly stated that the “Oregon in Moscow” project earned 4 Grammy’s. It earned the group four nominations, but did not win in any category. It should have.