The guitarist and longtime ECM fixture Ralph Towner has always flourished in sub-group settings, whether it’s Trios/Solo with fellow members of Oregon, a duet with the vibraphone legend Gary Burton (Slide Show), or the recent one-on-one with trumpeter extraordinaire Paolo Fresu.
This time, Towner teams with two other guitarists, the Austrian Wolfgang Muthspiel and the Kazak Slava Grigoryan, for Travel Guide. It’s a combination made more interesting by the fact that Muthspiel plays electric — albeit a rather soft electric — while the other two man classical guitars or 12-string (Towner) and baritone (Grigoryan) guitars. It creates a rich mesh of tones to go along with the melodically bright classical and folk harmonies.
Muthspiel’s wordless vocal on “Amarone Trio” calls to mind those times when it’s done so effectively by the Pat Metheny Group to enrich a progression. The guitar interplay is intricate, as on “Travel Guide” but never cluttered; as classically trained plectrists, these guys are masters at space and understatement. “Windsong” features Towner on a 12-string played with such precise touch, and chimes are used to set percolating tempos for “Nico und Mithra” and “Father Time.” Moreover, these are mature musicians who don’t get into a chops contest at every turn; “The Henrysons” is played unhurriedly and that’s just fine; the melody is plenty strong enough to carry the song.
Mellow is what you get from an ECM disc involving Ralph Towner, and Travel Guide is no exception. You get the fine craftsmanship, pristine production and a solid batch of songs, too. Thus, this is how mellow with a trio of guitarists is done right.
Travel Guide, by ECM Records, drops on Ocotber 15.