Ralph Towner, St George's, Bristol

Make it up before you go-go
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The Independent Culture

It's an uncommonly beautiful album, too, even by Towner's standards, where beauty counts for a lot: while jazz guitarists tend to favour six steel strings and fat-bellied semi-acoustic instruments, Towner has championed the nylon-strung classical guitar and the folkie's 12-string, playing his own harmonically dense, impressionistic compositions in a manner that owes more to Debussy than to Django. Classically trained, he was a pianist before taking up the guitar.

For this rare solo concert, Towner kept closely to the material from the new album, playing Spanish guitar for all but two numbers. But so perfect (and so short) were the versions of tunes such as "Oleander Etude", "The Pendant", and the ravishing "Always By Your Side", it was difficult to tell whether there was any improvisation going on at all.

Did this matter? Probably not, if it was Towner the composer that you valued most. For the many calloused-fingered co-instrumentalists in the hall, however, the apparent lack of risk and flash on show - together with a frustrated desire to see the rather resigned-looking Towner sweat a little - could have proved a problem.

There was plenty of beautiful music, although perhaps the most compelling guitaring came on the few numbers that Towner had not written himself. In the first half, he made Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine" (one of two non-originals on the album) into a real showpiece for his stupendous, if typically underplayed, technique. Then, towards the end of the second set, the performance at last caught fire with two jazz standards, Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" (his use of the 12-string recalling the John Renbourn and Bert Jansch version from years ago), and the Bill Evans/Miles Davis classic "Nardis".

By the close - after an encore so brief as to feel almost disparaging - one felt glad to have seen Ralph Towner, while wondering whether staying at home watching the stereo might have been equally entertaining. But ever since the show, Time Line has been sounding better and better.

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