Ralph Towner, ‘Solitary Woman’.

The studio recording of this tune still gives me the chills every time I hear it.  Ralph Towner is usually described with words like “enigmatic” and “quirky”, and from the first time I heard him with the group Oregon I could hear that.  (I was drawn to Oregon for other reasons at the time;  Paul McCandless had just floored me with his musical persona while touring with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and I was mostly listening for reeds.)  It was the trio record with drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Eddie Gomez, If Summer Had Its Ghosts, where I first really heard Towner’s voice as the understated powerhouse it is.

Many years later, it was Pandora that introduced me to the haunting 12-string brood that is “Solitary Woman”.  From first listen I was hooked, and the more I hear it now, the more I like the piece.

Of course, I then wanted to see if I could find a clip of Towner playing it live.  And I have to say, I was surprised.  I have seen two, both relatively recent, and both of them left me asking, “What happened?”

It’s not that I’m expecting him to play it the same way he does on the record–in fact I rather like it when artists re-interpret their own work, and in the “jazz” idiom, it’s nearly expected anyway.  But something just doesn’t seem right.  At the risk of trivializing it, there are big, obvious clams–as in “lost his way” sort of clams.  (And not intentional ones, either;  those have a very different sound.)  The sort of mistakes you’d expect someone like me to make.  It doesn’t fit what (little, admittedly) I know of Towner.

But the biggest thing, for me, is that in the live recordings he seems so…rushed.  One of the giant hallmarks of the studio piece is its simmering patience, especially in the rising-dyad theme that so beautifully frames that giant leading tone.  Both the dynamics and the timing are deliciously infuriating, and I would say it all seems to rise out of a position of resigned, moody patience.  I’d go so far as to say it nearly defines the piece on its own, and I would naturally expect to see Towner go through all sorts of variations and improvisation within that framework.  That’s not in evidence for either of the two recent live clips I’ve seen, and I must conclude that something else may be at work here.

The piece itself, though…man, what a lovely, haunting brood.  Bookmarked!

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Kevin Wilmeth

Professional geek. Amateur human. Credible threat to musical instruments anywhere. (I can't help it. Ideas just invade my brain...)

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