Jazz CD Reviews

Ralph Towner/ Paolo Fresu – Chiaroscuro – ECM

Songwriting Takes Center Stage

Published on March 14, 2010

Ralph Towner/ Paolo Fresu – Chiaroscuro – ECM

Ralph Towner/ Paolo Fresu – Chiaroscuro – ECM B0013955-02, 46:41 ****:

(Ralph Towner, classical guitar, twelve string guitar, baritone guitar; Paolo Fresu, trumpet & flugelhorn)

An excellent jazz duo is always a special treat. Not only are both musicians given time and space to demonstrate their full abilities, but the songwriting itself can take center stage. Often in larger groups, after every instrument has been mixed in and each player given a chance to elaborate on the theme, the structure and subtly of compositions are lost. With fewer players, a song can be expressed and explored thoroughly without completely derailing its momentum. ECM’s latest release from the new duo of Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu is an excellent example of this, with both musicians and Towner’s excellent songs given all their due.

The first track is an older composition of Towner’s, Wistful Thinking. Towner on guitar opens the tune with a brief solo that immediately exemplifies the song title’s. Fresu’s trumpet playing here, and on the rest of the album, is astonishing. He creates a pure tone, with no brass or breath sound whatsoever. This sweeter sound plays off Towner’s light playing in a composition that perfectly balances all of its harmonic and rhythmic elements, allowing the listener to get lost in the mood without disruption.

On the second track, another older song, Punta Giara, Towner switches emotions. The guitar again opens the song, this time essentially serving as the rhythm section. Fresu‘s phrasing on this song is expert. Some melodic lines clash at the end, or trail off and end abruptly. Rarely is the melody completely resolved, leaving a pleasurable touch of tension in a beautiful piece.

Chiaroscuro, the title track, features Fresu playing circular lines on the trumpet which build and build until about the two minute mark when Towner has an extended guitar solo. In one of the few missteps of the album, Tower fills the solo with lots of virtuosic flurries amounting to little substance. Fresu’s brief solo at about the five minute mark, however, is an exemplary play on the song’s main theme.

Sacred Place, the fifth track, is the strongest on the album. It features Towner playing his baritone guitar, and his phrasing on this song is simple but warm and most emotionally resonant. The composition is given space to explore the feelings evoked by the main melody, a group of chords strummed by Towner, who simultaneously plucks out additional notes to add color. A true reverence for the ‘sacred place’ of the title is strongly evoked.

For the Miles Davis composition Blue in Green Fresu changes the tone of his trumpet  completely. He also moves slowly, almost lazily in his phrasing for much of the song. Around the three and a half minute mark Towner has one of his strongest solos on the album.

On the sixth track, Doubled Up, Towner again turns to his baritone guitar. This is Towner’s best composition on the album, with a compelling and challenging rhythm. Fresu and Towner literally ‘double’ each other on the song, playing the melodic lines one after the other. Towner’s playing is refreshingly jumpy and anxious, unwilling to settle into a predictable rhythm. He sets the pace for Fresu, who responds with more high energy playing than at any other point on the record.

Zephyr, another older song, lives up to its title, which means a gentle breeze. It features light interplay between Fresu and Towner until about the three and a half minute mark when Towner has an other extended solo. It has the strongest dramatic ark of any on the album, and utilizes a powerful contrast between different rhythms.

For the last track, Postlude, Towner uses his twelve string guitar. Postlude is the stronger of the two improvisational tracks of the album and a great ending. Towner sets the mood with an ominous and foreboding theme, which Fresu expands with extended, tense playing. Fresu ends his lines with long high notes that never resolve in calmer tones, leaving the listener on edge at the end of each line.

Although this is their first album as a duo, Chiaroscuro is not the first time Fresu and Towner have played together, and it shows. They play in tandem, rather than taking turns, which allows Towner’s complex and captivating songwriting to emerge as the biggest star on the album.

TrackList: Wistful Thinking, Punta Giara, Chiascuro, Sacred Place, Blue in Green, Doubled Up, Zephyr, The Sacred Place (reprise), Two Miniatures, Postlude

- Ethan Krow




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