Ralph Towner - Paolo Fresu : Chiaroscuro ( Ecm 2085 )

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.”