Focused: An appreciation of the genre-bending guitar work of Ralph Towner

[Editor’s Note: This essay and interview originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal‘s 39th issue; with the 2020 release of Nels Cline’s Share the Wealth double-album, we’ve decided to share this for the very first time online. Like it? Consider supporting the FJ with a digital or print subscription to our magazine. We’ll keep the great content coming…]

I find it astonishing that for many this article could be an introduction to the guitarist/pianist/brass player and phenomenal composer Ralph Towner, but a few years ago I realized that for many in the generations younger than me, Ralph Towner had sort of gone off the radar. Perhaps this is because his later performances—of both his own projects and those with the long-standing group Oregon—occurred mostly in Europe, where he has lived for the last several years and where… well, where a lot of people embrace non-pop/non-trend-oriented culture more readily.

This piece is my tribute to one of the few artists whom I can heartily claim has been a consistent source of inspiration for me, both as a guitarist and as a composer, for over 40 years (yep!). In this sense, I must rather sheepishly admit that much of this article will be about yours truly: a view of this great artist as filtered through subjective eyes from my late teens until now. At the time of this writing, Ralph is about to celebrate his 77th birthday as he finishes a tour in support of his wonderful new solo guitar record My Foolish Heart on the legendary German label he’s been associated with and helped create an aesthetic identity for since 1973, ECM (Editions of Creative Music).

As I ruminated for weeks and weeks prior to attempting this tribute, a few things became clear to me: one is that I needed to unabashedly refer to Ralph Towner as “Ralph” in the body of the article. Unlike many stalwart and legendary artists who somehow end up being referred to by their last names most of the time (Monk, Metheny, Abercrombie, Zawinul, Coltrane), Ralph has, since the early days of listening to him, always been Ralph to me and my friends, as was the case with “Miles,” “Elvin,” “Herbie,” “Wayne,” and so on.

So Ralph it will be, with all due respect.

Second, Ralph is an artist to whom I owe a tremendous amount and one I’d like to expose to the uninitiated. He is one of the rarest-of-the-rare artists in my personal pantheon of greats who’s still playing and writing and whose work has alwaysbeen good. I can think of no point at which he/we can look back and say something like, “Oh yeah, his stuff in the ’70s was killer, but that phase in the late ’80s when he only played DX7 was problematic, to say the least.” Even when Ralph added the Prophet 5 synthesizer in the early ’80s, the sound of that instrument added a haunting and new textural ingredient to his already vast palette and it still sounds great to my ears. He is no scattershot polyglot like I am; he is focused. As I was working on this piece, yet another of Ralph’s generation to whom I paid a lot of attention in the ’70s passed away: Larry Coryell, who oddly figures into my first meeting Ralph in 1974. Yes—Ralph Towner is alive and well and his new record is wonderful, as good as anything he has done since the early ’70s!

The third thing I realized is that I can’t write this piece without writing about myself, and this became an almost insurmountable obstacle until I realized that one can just go online and get tons of general information about Ralph, so why attempt a biography? I just want you all to know how I feel in case you may feel the same way about his work.

Last, I must admit to being rather amused by all the attempts to describe/categorize Ralph Towner’s music. He precedes me in what I might term an “in the cracks” aesthetic embrace of many so-called genres and influences. Many of these were more prevalent in the late 1960s–1970s; we may term them part of the zeitgeist. These include Western “early”/classical music, jazz, elements of East Indian and other music generally (and somewhat lazily) referred to as “world music.” A look at Wikipedia finds these rather humorous attempts under genres: chamber jazz, third stream, jazz fusion, folk-jazz, ethno jazz, world fusion. In other words: MUSIC —mostly acoustic and with elements of improvisation, both jazz-related and completely spontaneous in methodology, with an awareness of and respect for music from non-Western cultures.

It would be too difficult (and probably boring) to try to explain how music like this came to be, but at the time it seemed like a natural and logical—if wholly visionary and singular—development out of all the interests the counterculture (read: hippie culture) was immersing itself in. After studying in Oregon and Vienna, Ralph Towner, as recorded, appears to have started with one group in the late 1960s that sought to bring these elements together in what now (and maybe even back then) might have been a forced attempt at a kind of fusion (note: this f-word did not exist until the ’70s). That group was the Paul Winter Consort.

Three significant things emerged from this association for me: one was that it brought together a few talented and genre-bending individuals who would later become the supreme architects of this acoustic fusion music, and that became known as the group Oregon, which still exists and performs and records to this day and which was the delivery system that exposed me and thousands of others to Ralph Towner’s playing and composing. Another thing that happened when the hippie/classical guru like countenance of woodwind player Paul Winter formed and recorded his the Consort was that it brought the world the anthemic, yet poignant and dynamic, song “Icarus” by Ralph, which in its day became referred to by many as a “New Age anthem,” much to the chagrin of Mr. Towner. And “New Age” somehow did notget listed as one of Ralph’s many genres, did it? Anyway, this song—the title track to the Consort’s best-known recording —appears on many subsequent Towner recordings and in his concert performances and is, in some ways, still rather definitive Ralph: great melody, deft modal manipulation, with a kind of soaring, cathartic quality that is simultaneously intimate and sweeping.

And last, after joining the Consort, Ralph—then primarily a nylon-string player as well as an accomplished piano, trumpet and French horn player—was presented with a new instrument to try: the acoustic 12-string guitar. Kind of like when Miles Davis called a recording session and Herbie Hancock discovered that he was to only play this new thing called the electric piano, I guess. And this, my friends, is where Ralph’s palette stretched to unforeseen heights and how the guitarist Ralph Towner ended up slapping me and thousands of others upside the head when he was asked to guest on Weather Report’s second record, I Sing the Body Electric, and we heard his solo 12-string introduction to “The Moors.”

This might be a good time to write a little bit about the 12-string guitar as I perceived it and as it was being used in the late 1960s–’70s. It was certainly much more prevalent than it is now. Around 1965, as a lad of 10, I had my first taste of musical inspiration that was to lead me down the sonic garden path, and that was the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Enchanted by the sound of this group as their mercurial rise was just beginning, I knew nothing about guitars—but after reading about the Byrds in fan magazines and the like, I learned about this 12-string guitar when writers and listeners alike talked about “jingle jangle.”

Acoustic 12-strings—usually brutally out of tune/un-intonated —appeared on dozens of pop singles in the mid-to-late ’60s, especially ones coming out of Britain. Jimmy Page famously started playing a Gibson double-neck with Led Zeppelin on semi-obscure ditties like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” (heh heh!) by maybe 1972. Steve Howe of Yes also played a Gibson double-neck from time to time, and probably Steve Hackett from Genesis did, too. I got a tiny used Rickenbacker 12-string in maybe 1972, when I was 17 years old, with the intention of adding it to my palette as an emerging (and totally clueless, technically) “jazz/rock” musician. By this time, the electric 12-string was appearing prominently in some of the best and most forward-looking music of that time, not just in rock and prog-rock: on Pat Martino’s album Desperado, where he plays the entire session on a spectacularly out-of-tune Gibson; on recordings by a then-new band called the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in which the ripping and totally overwhelming John McLaughlin rocked a Gibson double-neck like Pagey’s; and by the (maybe) 20-year-old Pat Metheny in the Gary Burton Quintet, playing alongside six-string melodic wonder Mick Goodrick—perhaps an attempt to make sure the two were more easily differentiated. Great stuff! And yes—I was quite aware of all of this music at that time.

And what of the acoustic 12-string in creative music? Prior to getting the jolt of Ralph Towner’s intro to “The Moors,” it was pretty much all about records like the legendary 6 and 12-String Guitar by Leo Kottke, which to this day keeps the solo guitar bar almost impossibly high, and the totally idiosyncratic solo records by mystical representative of the forest Robbie Basho. Both of these gentlemen recorded on Takoma Records, squired into the public eye and ear by the iconoclastic solo guitar maverick John Fahey. Then along came Ralph…

My twin brother, Alex, and I trekked into the magical worlds of so-called progressive rock and jazz/rock (remember, the f-word had not come along yet!) around 1971, right as we were entering high school. Because Alex had been zapped by the Tony Williams Lifetime, our lives began to evolve and lead us to the music that, to this day, really informs our musical aesthetic and methodologies. We learned that almost all roads in and out of this emerging new sound led to Miles Davis. And the electric innovations of records like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew spawned Weather Report, the musically communal electric-jazz brainchild of two of Miles’ most notable sidemen/composers: Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. We excitedly followed every step of this new band, and when their second record, I Sing the Body Electric, was released in 1972, I picked it up immediately.

The first rather devastatingly powerful track is a tone poem written by Zawinul called “The Unknown Soldier.” While barely recovering from the wallop this piece delivers, we were then exposed to…acoustic guitar? Weather Report was a steadfastly guitar-less band its entire career. But this guitar introduction was so wild—percussive, actually kind of…funky. And harmonically free. That finger vibrato! Those crisp harmonics! Those insane fingerstyle flurries! Scurrying to the album credits, we found the player’s name: Ralph Towner.

I now needed to know everything about Ralph Towner, and I know I’m not the only person who had this reaction. Check it out: I learned only last year that the ever-intimidating and brilliant Joe Zawinul and the recording engineer hoodwinked Ralph by recording him while he was ostensibly sound-checking, getting levels, etc., and when he emerged from the studio saying something like, “Okay guys, I’m ready now,” they said, “No, man—you’re done! You can go home!” Zawinul was apparently pretty sure that Ralph would be more careful and nervous when the recording was officially happening and had designed this strategy ahead of time to get what he wanted out of Mr. Towner. The intro made a powerful impression on me, to say the least. [For further illumination on this topic, please see the little interview at the end of this piece that I conducted with Ralph]

Investigating the music of Ralph Towner naturally led me to Oregon, whose first two records were out on the Vanguard label. Being that I was not just an aspiring electric guitar flagellator but also a sensitive, acoustic-friendly teenager, I was an immediate fan of this group and its polyglot aesthetic. Ralph’s nylon-string and 12-string guitars, piano, even French horn and trumpet dovetailed with Paul McCandless’ oboe and English horn, Glenn Moore’s acoustic bass, flute and scratchy violin, and Collin Walcott’s tablas, sitar and many other (mostly) percussion instruments. If one listens to Ralph Towner compositions like “Aurora” and “Distant Hills” from this time, one can really get his “thing,” I feel. What is it that I find so appealing about Ralph Towner’s compositions? As I said earlier when I attempted to describe his song “Icarus”: His music possesses a balanced and beautiful combination of singable melodic lines, rhythmic drive—often in odd meters that flow rather than throw one off-balance—and harmonic invention that combines the directness of, say, music of the Renaissance with the exhilarating advances of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist composers and with what we generally refer to as jazz harmony.

As a player, his interpretations are never precious or clever or quaint. In fact, his free use of the guitar’s idiomatic elements, of open tunings on the 12-string and his overall almost funky rhythmic drive and interest adds up to what I might term GREAT MUSIC. Period. The acoustic group my late friend (bassist/pianist/composer) Eric von Essen and I formed in 1980 with my brother, (percussionist/composer) Alex, and (violinist/composer) Jeff Gauthier called Quartet Music was unabashedly taking off from Oregon and from elements of the Miles Davis Quintet: harmonically dense, rhythmically interesting compositions with the elements of spontaneous improvisation and textural investigation prominently added. At the time, I was really just learning serious guitar. But I never had a guitar teacher for very long (they moved away, basically sparing me further psychological damage). It was by playing Eric von Essen’s compositions that I really learned most of what I was then seeking to know about, which was what we often referred to as “Ralph chords.” This category could, by the way, also include “Abercrombie chords” and (pianist Richie) “Beirach chords,” while Keith Jarrett (who wrote a lot of songs back in those days) and Wayne Shorter loomed as gods of song. In this group I played steel-string acoustic, nylon-string acoustic (defaming it with a pick a la Willie Nelson, not with classical technique) and—you guessed it—acoustic 12-string.

In 1974, I was attending Occidental College in Los Angeles. If I could describe myself at age 19, I would say that I was over-serious, totally insecure, alarmingly skinny and über-curious about Eastern mysticism/religion, philosophy and MUSIC. When I saw that Oregon were coming to play The Troubadour, opening for Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House, I had to go hear Oregon. They were, I believe, playing two shows per night. At some point, I wriggled uneasily upstairs to the tiny dressing room Oregon were in and there he was: my man Ralph. So I mustered the courage to introduce myself, and Ralph was incredibly friendly. I have no idea what we chatted about, but probably something about lessons or guidance or…something. I went twice to hear them, and on the second night Ralph, after Oregon’s first show, suggested that we go outside, as he was hungry and the Eleventh House were a hard band to escape sonically. Some peace and quiet, perhaps? So we walked down Santa Monica Blvd. to Barney’s Beanery. I’m sure I was shitting bricks but trying to act cool, calm and collected. Ralph was really relaxed, and he told me that I really should get my sight reading together and that maybe he could suggest a teacher for me to study with at some point. Well, sorry Ralph, but I never did get my reading together. But since then—sometimes with large gaps in between—we have stayed in touch. And I have continued to follow his music with interest and frequent awe.

As the 1970s gave way to the Reagan-sullied ’80s, Oregon, like many of my favorite instrumental jazz-related favorites, went from playing lovely concert halls to tiny clubs in the United States. I saw Oregon many times, in many phases and in many different-sized venues. Concurrently with the Oregon recordings, Ralph was releasing a lot of his music on the new German label ECM. At first these records were pretty hard to find. My brother and I would pile into our friend Lee’s Volvo station wagon and trek over the hill into the San Fernando Valley to acquire import records. It was there that I bought Ralph Towner’s first non-Oregon record, Trios/Solos—a fantastic record. His own pieces, the improvisations and his singular interpretation of the Bill Evans song “Re: Person I Knew” defined a new kind of approach to improvised music. It was followed very rapidly by a slew of great recordings: a duo record with guitarist John Abercrombie called Sargasso Sea(very influential for me, for sure), a stunning solo/overdub record called Diary, the first of two duo recordings with (vibraphonist) Gary Burton called Matchbook, and a real game-changer called Solstice that was to become a classic and one of the records that defined the ECM sound, which was to say that it joined Ralph with the previously little-known European musicians Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Jon Christensen and the reverb-laden high-fidelity of producer Manfred Eicher and his engineers’ fresh approach.

This became a movement, and soon ECM was being distributed by the giant Polydor label in the U.S., and later by Warner Bros. What followed was a tremendously fertile period of composition and exploration for Ralph Towner as he released records like Solo Concert, Batik, Old and New Friends, and the stunning Blue Sun, a record wherein Ralph plays all the instruments with breathtaking and often haunting results. I can assure you that I wore out copies of both Solo Concert and Blue Sun.

All the while, Oregon were making records for the Warner Bros. subsidiary Elektra, then for ECM. The mid-’80s also saw tragedy for Ralph and for Oregon when their percussionist/sitarist Collin Walcott, a genuinely beautiful, affable and musically irreplaceable brother-in-arms was killed in a bus accident in 1984 when Oregon’s tour bus collided with several other cars on an East German highway in dense fog. Oregon eventually continued on with Indian percussion wizard Trilok Gurtu, eventually finding a new sound and a kindred spirit in drummer Mark Walker. But during this time, Ralph recorded some of his most standout records, rarely repeating personnel, always for ECM. I am pretty sure that this was also the period when it became ever-challenging economically for musicians like Ralph and his comrades to tour the United States much, as awareness and fees in Europe and elsewhere had to be much higher.

In the ensuing years, Ralph Towner continued to make great records and to tour. Check out the “selected” (though pretty damn long, I admit) sidebar list of some of my favorite Towner efforts from the ’90s and into the new millennium. I can safely say that a lot of people by this time had sort of tired of or written off the Euro-jazz ECM thing and Oregon as well. But not me! In fact, I feel that the two duet records Ralph did with (legendary bassist) Gary Peacock are some of his very best. Or at least they are two of my personal favorites. Oracle (1994) and A Closer View (1998, but I think it’s unreleased music from the Oracle session) define—for me at least—everything that is great and that I love about Ralph Towner and his singular combination of classical/jazz/folk/improvised acoustic guitar music.

In 2006, ECM released a solo guitar record called Time Line (which followed one from 2000 called Anthem). Since I am admitting that this article is as much about my admittedly subjective views as it is about informing you of a great artist/musician/composer who happens to play classical and 12-string acoustic guitars, I am singling this record out because I feel it is one of the greatest solo acoustic guitar records. It is a triumph of composition and of technique, including pieces like the “Oleander Etude,” that are instant classics—and I mean that in the “classical” sense. When I discovered Ralph in the ’70s and listened to his music and playing, I was also exposed to modern classical guitar music from the so-called “legit” world: non-improvised performances of solo guitar (or sometimes duo, in the case of the amazing Assad Brothers from Brazil). Guitarists like Julian Bream, John Williams and the lesser-known Baltazar Benitez and Vincenzo Macaluso were performing and recording pieces written for or transcribed for the guitar by Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Leo Brouwer, William Walton, Mikis Theodorakis, Erik Satie, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Abel Carlevaro.

Though possessing zero classical technique, I did try to ingest the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures and colors of these works. The Carlevaro pieces, for example, really remind me of Towner compositions. Had he heard Ralph over there in Argentina? I don’t know. But the pieces on Time Lines are every bit as visionary, well-crafted and exhilarating as the best of these eminent composers’ works. And besides the brilliant original works—mostly performed on nylon-string—one also gets “Come Rain or Come Shine” and finally “My Man’s Gone Now” as a haunting concluding track to leave you wanting more, much as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” served on Anthem. Check it out, people: Ralph Towner’s signature concoction of wistful but unsentimental beauty, frothy, Calypso-inspired sunniness, probing, spontaneous improvisations…cogent explorations and instant-classic compositions. And with that I will stop foaming and draw this to a smooth close.

These days, Ralph Towner lives in Italy, somewhere in or just outside of Rome. By the time you read this he will have turned 77. That’s right! He plays in a remarkable guitar trio with Wolfgang Muthspiel (who is as at home playing classical guitar as he is shredding jazz fusion) and Slava Grigoryan (a great player I did not know until I heard this trio and who lives in Australia). And Ralph just released—on ECM, natch—another wonderful solo record called My Foolish Heart (see the short interview that follows for a great story about the inclusion of this standard and the subsequent album title). For anyone unfamiliar with Ralph Towner’s work, this record is a great place to start, which is really saying something when viewing a prolific career of composition and instrumental performance that began in the late 1960s. The opening track, “Pilgrim,” is a perfect introduction to the Towner aesthetic, evincing dazzling harmonic invention and his driving fingerstyle. Listening to this record, I actually think his technique may have improved! The next two songs, “I’ll Sing to You” and “Saunter,” round out the Towner identity. If you don’t dig these first three tracks, I guess you’re just not a Ralph Towner kind o’ human. The version of “My Foolish Heart” is, as is often the case with Ralph’s interpretations of jazz standards, beautiful without sentimentality, eschewing jazz licks and concentrating instead on penetrating harmonic elements and propulsive arpeggiation. Classic.

And while those of us following Ralph Towner’s career all these years have noticed a gradual decrease in the amount of 12-string performances, I say so be it. The 12-string beast is admittedly hard on the nails, and is also a bulky extra thing for a gentleman of advancing years to lug around. As I write this, Ralph is doing a solo tour of the U.S. that started out with one show/event at SFJazz as part of an ECM festival and grew into a mini-tour of mostly major American cities. It is his first tour in the U.S. in well over a decade, and I missed every concert because I, too, was out there playing. For it, he brought only the nylon-string.

To Ralph: I never did get my reading together and I have barely been disciplined, so I don’t know how, other than the fact that I love to try to play music, I ever got anywhere. But I owe you more than I can express for giving me so much inspiration and musical information. You set an example of excellence for personal vision and fortitude, and you are a true gentleman. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

What follows is an interview I did with Ralph Towner via email before he left for his solo guitar tour of venues in the United States during the month of February 2017. Though brief, it adds some great details to anecdotes I referred to in the piece you just read while also supplying semi-detailed information about the persistent/nagging topic of gear.

Nels Cline: I know that you played piano and brass instruments before you picked up the classical guitar —in the ’60s? What was it that drew you to the instrument initially?

Ralph Towner: The capability of the classical guitar technique to play and control the multiple voices in a pianistic and orchestral way made a strong impact on me when I heard it in the final years of my music composition studies at the University of Oregon. I recognized immediately that at the age of 22, I needed a great teacher and an intense immersion with no diversions to gain the necessary technique to play even a basic classical concert. Karl Scheit, the professor of guitar in the Vienna Music Academy was a perfect teacher for me.

NC: When studying in Vienna, was the emphasis on the Spanish repertoire that Segovia commissioned? Were there forays into transcriptions of lute music/“early Music”?

RT: The emphasis was more on Renaissance and Baroque music, beginning with easier but very musical lute transcriptions of the great renaissance composers and gradually increasing the difficulty of the pieces. The technique was a natural necessity for the musical content, and exercises were always connected with the pieces that were currently assigned, always keeping the link with music intact.

NC: Your writing often has some of the harmonic and idiomatic aspects of some of the pieces that 20th-century composers such as Walton, Carlevaro and Britten were writing in the ’70s. Were you aware of this music? Did you play/learn any of these works? The Carlevaro “Etudes,” for example, bear a striking resemblance to some of your songs and I have thought for years that he was influenced by you. Is this possible?

RT: I was familiar with these composers, as well as Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky and many others, having gotten a diploma in music composition before embarking on the study of the guitar in Vienna. (The diploma wasn’t exactly a goal for me, but the exposure to more complex 20th-century music in my composition studies was invaluable.) I never tried to tackle the Britten piece, and I now visit the classical pieces only when I’m not composing my own pieces and have a little time to browse.

NC: I know that Bill Evans is one of your greatest inspirations. Did you adopt certain elements of his marvelous harmonic language to the guitar right away, or did this emerge gradually in your style?

RT: When I went to Vienna, I was a beginner on the instrument, and I had vowed to set my piano-playing aside in order to learn the guitar in the best way possible, with no distractions. I spent the first year in a small room near the city limits practicing an average of eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week for nine months straight. A self-imposed crash course, so to speak. After the first year, I began integrating my piano knowledge into the guitar, strongly influenced by the trio of Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian.

NC: Along with your recognizable harmonic language and often hooky riffs (yep—sorry, but I think it’s true) in your compositions, I have always loved that your playing has rhythmic interest, percussive drive. In this way, it sometimes makes me think of the great Brazilian players/composers like Baden Powell and Bola Sete, as well as some of the Bossa Nova greats. Were you listening to that music when it was taking over a goodly chunk of the world’s attention in the ’60s and, if so, did it inform your percussive style?

RT: When I first heard that music, I was on a freighter crossing the Atlantic from Hamburg to Norfolk, Virginia. It came very faintly over a radio someone was playing, and it was fascinating and immediately found its way into my playing, as the harmonies were strongly influenced by American jazz. When I moved to NYC in 1968, I hooked up with a few Brazilian musicians, among them Airto and Flora, and did a small tour with Astrud Gilberto. I had a good sense of that music, and it had a major effect on what I wrote for the guitar.

NC: Along with many others in the early ’70s, I became aware of you by hearing that remarkable 12-string intro to “The Moors” by Weather Report—a total game-changer for me! First, is the story Zawinul told about fooling you into playing the intro without knowing you were being recorded true? It’s pretty apocryphal! Second, when and how did the 12-string come into your life?

RT: The story of how the intro came to be is true. I had never heard of Joe’s version of the story, but it sounds accurate! I wondered where everyone had disappeared to in the studio while I was playing! It is a great example of the creativity of Zawinul and Wayne Shorter that [they] would include a 12-string guitar in the music of that great group. My 12-string had been stolen a few days before that recording. I rented one for $10 from a music store in the village and played it as-is, and I found some interesting things on it. (I only started playing the 12-string because I had agreed to use it on a Paul Winter tour I was hired for a few years before.) It is a fascinating instrument when played in the classical technique, but murder on the fingernails, so it is quite rare to hear any classical guitarist risk destroying their tone by scraping on double strings of steel. But I found some different approach to making music on it, in spite of the constant nail filing in order to play both types of guitars.

NC: What’s happening with Oregon these days? Everyone okay? I hear rumblings about shows every once in a while…

RT: Oregon has been active all over the world, touring at least twice a year. Mostly in Europe, as we don’t have an agent in the States. We just completed recording our 30th album, this time with CAMJazz records of Rome. CD promotion seems a little slow as the music industry is changing so rapidly. It’s a bit surprising to hear that people are not always aware that the band hasn’t stopped touring or recording. The new CD will be out in the spring [2017], and will be titled Lantern.

NC: It’s been something like 47 years that you’ve been recording for ECM, working with Manfred Eicher. Obviously, back in the ’70s this relationship was beyond ideal for your music and brought a whole new aesthetic to the world—much of it derived from (in my opinion) your writing and playing style and the innovations of Oregon and aspects of the Paul Winter Consort. Is it happy and comfortable to make a record like My Foolish Heart, or are there challenges beyond just striving for a good take, even nowadays?

RT: I’m always excited about the prospect of recording. I try to wait until I have enough material composed to begin to consider recording. Every recording has a different feeling about it, and some sessions are more difficult, depending on the music. But it is always an honor to be able to document your life’s work.

NC: How did the trio with Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan come about and where did you find Mr. Grigoryan? It is a remarkable project—the chemistry and compatibility is palpable.

RT: Slava Grigoryan invited Wolfgang and myself to Australia for a trio tour. He had already worked with Wolfgang, and the collaboration seemed good to all of us. The music and the tour was such a success, as well as the new friendship and compatibility, that we decided to do a recording in Australia. That recording was called From a Dream and we stuck together for more tours, and then the opportunity arose to record Travel Guide, our disc for ECM.

NC: Perhaps this is impossible to answer, but here goes: How does a song or étude or whatever come to you? I am assuming that there is nothing consistent, that there is no set pattern. You have some really beautifully memorable riffs in a lot of your songs. Can a newly discovered and treasured riff be a catalyst? Also, have you ever started writing a song on the piano and then switch it to a guitar piece and/or vice-versa?

RT: I generally bump into an idea when I’m practicing or improvising. The ability to distinguish a collection of interesting sounds from a theme or catalyst for a piece is something that a composer develops through experience. For me, the first event or sound and what happens when it is succeeded by the second sound or event gives a piece its identity and generates the growth that follows. Music has always told a story, but in a language that for me is nonverbal in its instrumental form, and with all the emotional and dramatic possibilities contained in a novel or literary work. Some pieces composed on piano sometimes become guitar pieces, and vice versa, but in general they are built for the instrument I eventually play them on.

NC: Many of your pieces evince certain programmatic elements, such as “Waterwheel” (a hypnotic, circular, 11-beat figure) or “The Juggler’s Etude.” Do you title these later as you get impressions from the song, or does this kind of extra-musical vision come first? Or simultaneously?

RT: Rarely do I title any piece until it has been recorded, or at least played enough to suggest a good title. “Waterwheel,” for example, was written for a documentary film called Fast Break, about an NBA team. We kept playing it in Oregon and another title eventually seemed more suitable and less specific. Titles are important, and they are necessary in order to refer to the piece. I don’t particularly intend to program what a listener should envision or feel when hearing the music. That’s a special thing about music in that it becomes the personal world of the listener… “the ears of the beholder.”

NC: What nylon-string and 12-string guitars are you playing these days? And what kind of strings? You eschew internal pickups, correct?

RT: I’m back to playing my 1995 Jeffrey Elliott–Cindy Burton guitar. It had been severely damaged on a flight from Brazil, and was restored by Giovanni Garofalo of Palermo. It was ready a bit too late for the solo recording, so the new CD was done on a newer Jim Redgate, the Australian maker. I use the normal tension D’Addario strings on the classical guitars, and light-gauge bronze for the 12-string. I do use a pickup on the 12-string in performances to ease the wear on my fingernails. I mix it with my usual Beyer M160 double ribbon mic. The classical is always just mic, with a slight boost from a pre-amp.

NC: Do you keep a lot of guitars around, or do you find/commission new ones and jettison the older ones? Do you still have your old Ramirez and Guild from when I first heard you?

RT: I still have the two Guild 12-strings that were made specially for me back in 1976. They were used on the solo concert recording. They have classical-width necks, and back and sides of rosewood. I have several classical guitars, two Elliotts, one that is three years old; one Jim Redgate; a 10-year-old Giovanni Garofalo made in Palermo; and a new Aldo Illota, an Italian luthier. The Ramirez is long gone, regrettably.

NC: You’ve been writing and playing for a long time now, and you seem as vital as ever. Your new solo recording, My Foolish Heart, seems especially vibrant, lively. Any insight or advice you can offer me or others regarding longevity and tenacity in the arts?

RT: I still am enthralled with playing every day. I’m still trying to improve. The guitar is very unforgiving if you don’t play it every day, especially at my age.

NC: Is your heart still foolish? Do you consider yourself a romantic artist? Many of your pieces reveal a poignant, sweet and sometimes bittersweet emotional resonance that I have always treasured.

RT: Using that title has some irony to it, as I had a pacemaker installed after I fell on my face two years ago during a soundcheck for an Eberhard Weber tribute concert in Stuttgart. It featured many guest artists, including Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Paul McCandless and many others. Gary was the first to reach me and hoisted me back onto my chair. I then went off in an ambulance and missed playing in the concert. I returned to Rome and got the pacemaker in a week. Now I’m fine and have even more energy than previously, and my heart beats at a consistent rate, not the foolishly low rate of sub-50, as it tended to wander to. And I continue to have a romantic streak, laced with some sort of sense of melancholy I picked up from George Gershwin music from very early childhood.

NC: How do you like living in Rome?

RT: It helps my romantic streak considerably, and being married to a wonderful Italian woman helps even more!