Monday, April 23, 2018

Ralph Towner with Glen More - 1973 - Trios / Solos

Ralph Towner with Glen More
Trios / Solos

01. Brujo 5:34
02. Winter Light 3:34
03. Noctuary 2:22
04. 1x12 2:48
05. A Belt Of Asteroids 6:37
06. Re: Person I Knew 6:18
07. Suite: 3x12 7:12
08. Raven's Wood 5:19
09. Reach Me Friend 3:24

Bass – Glen Moore
Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner
Oboe – Paul McCandless
Tabla – Collin Walcott

Recorded November 27-28 1972 at Sound Ideas Studio, New York City.

Essentially an Oregon album under a different name, Trios/Solos consists mainly of Ralph Towner originals culled from the group’s Vanguard sessions. The opening “Brujo” is anchored by Towner’s twelve mighty strings and the late Collin Walcott’s tabla stylings, leaving a winding crevice through which Glen Moore works his whimsical bass. “Noctuary” features Paul McCandless on oboe, soaring loosely through the Towner/Moore fulcrum before the trio ties itself into a tightly improvised not. The Bill Evans tune “Re: Person I Knew” stands out in a gorgeous rendition. Towner doubles on piano and 12-string—laying down a sound that would soon crystallize into his classic ECM album Solstice—as Moore lurks in the background. “Raven’s Wood” continues the same configuration, only this time with nylon, darkening its pastoral modality with nocturnal visions.

Despite the intimate wonders of these trios, the album’s titular solos abound with some of its most focused and furthest-reaching moments. Moore’s “A Belt Of Asteroids” is a curious one at that. Seeming at first out of place in its present company, it carefully peels open the album’s outer layers with every twang. The remainders feature Towner doing what he does best. Take the compact “Suite: 3×12,” a carefully thought out composition in which his palpable picking and love for harmonics shines through at every turn, not to mention his consistently progressive energy. The last of the three movements is more aggressive in its attack and wound around a precise rhythmic core. “Winter Light” is heavily steeped in 6-string nostalgia, lonely but content in its solitude. “1×12” is, by contrast, a run along a blazing trail. Lastly, we have “Reach Me, Friend,” a snapshot of expectation that breathes with audible resolve.

As the driving force behind the album, Towner’s technique is mellifluous as usual, forging an aerial sound that constantly surveys the untouched lakes shimmering below like mirrors in the brilliance of his execution. Despite the lush performances throughout, the imagery is all so viscerally sere. And while there is no danger in what we see, there remains a threat unseen, lingering just beyond the horizon, quelled only by the arrival of the morning sun.

Azimuth - 1985 - Azimuth '85

Azimuth '85

01. Adios Iony 6:20
02. Dream / Lost Song 5:52
03. Who Are You? 3:37
04. Breathtaking 6:52
05. Potion 1 2:12
06. February Daze 6:20
07. Til Bakebiikk 9:02
08. Potion 2 3:35

Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Vocals – Norma Winstone

Recorded March 1985 at Rainbow Studios, Oslo.

The equivocal trio known as Azimuth will forever be one of ECM’s most profound. The combination of John Taylor’s pianism and Norma Winstone’s vocals alongside Kenny Wheeler’s soulful trumpeting was just what the 1980s needed to find solace in sound. Taylor’s heart is sure to still yours in “Adios Iony,” from which Wheeler and Winstone draw parallel threads before the slow persuasion of words begins to make itself heard:

…a boat rounds the bend…bearing down…
three herons stand their ground…swaying…
did you see them land?
moon behind branches…
suddenly bright, clear, frosty

Winstone paints her poetry in talk-singing before leaping into a pool of organ as Wheeler plays us out. “Dream” sleeps peacefully in loving vocal arms.

you and I in a vast deserted square
everything crumbles to the ground
facing you, I slowly slide into the chasm of your smile…

We feel blissfully lost, somehow grounded by love yet pushed ever forward beyond our wildest desires and into humbler shelters. The piano of “Lost Song” then looks us in the eye as if to speak the next title: “Who Are You?” The trumpeting here is liquid mercury. Like Siegfried’s bird, it is a floating commentator, hanging from the thinnest of threads pinched in forested fingers.

…funny to think of the children we were
memories we walked right through
but now you ask,
I’d have to guess that you feel lonely too…

Music and song walk hand in hand into the slow dance that follows. In “Breathtaking,” Winstone touches glaring heights with her vast internal power, drawing her throat into the refractions of a “February Daze.” The Steve Reichian consistency in the keys lends unusual urgency to the group’s ethereal sound, which only further blurs the snapshot rendered in “Til Bakeblikk.” The album’s elixir is made complete with two “Potions,” the second of which sits perched on the softly swinging bar of its aural cage, forever singing, forever wanting, and finding flight only in the concluding silence.

This is Azimuth’s zenith and another significant chapter of ECM’s backstory. It’s easy to see why this album never made it on to the 3-disc retrospective, for to do so would have risked diluting its value as a standalone artifact. Essential for many reasons, not least of all for Taylor, who plays as if he were holding an inanimate body in his hands, tracing its every contour until it comes back to life.

Azimuth with Ralph Towner - 1980 - Depart

Azimuth with Ralph Towner 

01. The Longest Day 6:27
02. Autumn 11:09
03. Arrivée 7:50
04. From The Window 1:08
05. Windfall 4:32
06. The Rabbit 2:34
07. Charcoal Traces 4:32
08. Départ 10:28
09. The Longest Day (Reprise) 3:45

Flugelhorn, Trumpet – Kenny Wheeler
Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner
Voice – Norma Winstone

Recorded December 1979 at Talent Studios, Oslo.

For its third outing, Azimuth welcomed the strings of guitarist Ralph Towner. “The Longest Day” opens in Solstice territory, setting out through a drizzle of piano and 12-string. Winstone’s overdubs visualize gossamer veils of more distant storms, while Wheeler’s soulful trumpet shines like the sun beyond them. Winstone takes her voice to unexpected heights, pulling a banner of time across the sky into the contemplative piano introduction of “Autumn.” There is no falling. Rather, we get the stillness of those leaves before they die, hanging on with their last vestments of color as the winds arrive to shake them from their boughs. Winstone hangs words in the air amid Towner’s almost pianistic fingerings and Wheeler’s staccato cries. “Arrivée” is just that, but is one of many destinations in this sojourn. Incising solos leave their wounds, closed at last by the plasma of Winstone’s mellifluous protractions. This is followed by a quartet of so-called “Touching Points,” which further extrapolate vocal information from instrumental sources, and vice versa. Wordless fibers are at once spun and frayed in passages of intense physicality. Towner is put to improvisatory task, adding tentative yet appropriate ornaments of his own. The organ drone of the title track respires beneath Winstone’s dips into thermal bliss. Words spread their branches, wrought in tinsel and blown glass. The album ends with a reprise of “The Longest Day” for piano alone. Resplendent and far-reaching, it is a bittersweet ending to Azimuth’s most fully realized effort, through which the project honed its sound to an art.

Azimuth was one of ECM’s most deftly realized acts, and it continues to open like a slow cloudburst every time I immerse myself in it. Its malleable formula provides seemingly endless room for possibility. Winstone’s voice sparkles in the soft focus of consistently sensitive production, a slowly flapping bird with nowhere to go but up. She and Taylor are ideal partners, forging as they do a silent smolder of emotional bonds, while Wheeler heaves his own powerful feathers with conviction. The brief addition of Tower heightens their collective sound, even as it tethers them to the earth. This is a classic set of three seminal albums, each a movement in a larger suite, where souls can dance in motions so slow that they appear as still as ice, and are just as vulnerable to heat.

Azimuth - 1978 - The Touchstone

The Touchstone

01. Eulogy 10:22
02. Silver 6:27
03. Mayday 5:27
04. Jero 6:18
05. Prelude 5:34
06. See 10:45

Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Voice – Norma Winstone

Recorded June 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo

Azimuth’s second ECM effort is also the group’s most enigmatic. The organ that underlies “Eulogy” gives just enough air for Wheeler to glide, and injects all that follows with deep, warm breath. The trio writes a more intimate letter in “Silver,” answered in the unsteady penmanship of “Mayday,” over which our soloists take great care to dot every i and cross every t. The distant muted trumpets of “Jero” mesh with Winstone’s ambulatory menageries. Taylor draws a fluid line through their incantations, ignoring the periphery all the way to the end of “Prelude,” a track so lovely that it makes one want to listen to the album backwards. This is an elusive set, to be sure, filled with quiet, seething power, but also one that builds its nests comfortably over our heads. It can only fly, because it knows no other way to travel.

John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler - 1977 - Azimuth

John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler

01. Sirens' Song 4:10
02. O 6:48
03. Azimuth 12:15
04. The Tunnel 9:14
05. Greek Triangle 2:02
06. Jacob 8:41

Piano, Synthesizer – John Taylor
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Vocals – Norma Winstone

Recorded March 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo

1. The arc of the horizon measured clockwise from the south point, in astronomy, or from the north point, in navigation, to the point where a vertical circle through a given heavenly body intersects the horizon.
2. A group made up of vocalist Norma Winstone, husband John Taylor on keyboards, and trumpeter/fluegelhornist Kenny Wheeler whose music, measured from any point, draws an arc through countless heavenly bodies before intersecting with the enchanted listener.

The group that would become Azimuth began its journey on this self-titled album. “Siren’s Song” rests on the forgiving laurels of a repeated motif, gilded by a horn-flanked voice amid pianistic accents. Like a Steve Reich riff dropped in a pool of jazz, it treats the pulse as the animating force of its creation. Wheeler broadens Winstone’s palette in the melodic relays of “O.” The title track is buoyed by a stunningly gorgeous arpeggiator, over which Winstone sets to flight a pair of overdubbed birds. Once they have flown away, Wheeler draws between their pinpointed forms a sinuous trajectory, along which one is able to chart the album’s path with even more fluid precision. The synthetic backdrop builds in scope, turning what might otherwise be a repetitive New Age loop into an elegiac improvisational exercise. The plaintive piano introduction of “The Tunnel” extends this supportive electricity, into which Winstone begins to sow her potent words. Semantics trail off into further meanderings, reminiscent of the previous track, before the backdrop morphs into a stunning change of key. This makes “Greek Triangle,” a curious piece for brass, all the more whimsical for its appearance. Though outwardly incongruous, its breathes with the same focused spirit that animates the whole, thereby elevating it beyond the status of fanciful diversion. It also serves to refresh our palette for the lyricism of “Jacob,” in which Winstone’s braids and Wheeler’s fluid accents close an altogether fascinating mosaic of atmospheres.