Apr 2 2019
This is why I blog: Oregon and “45th Parallel”
Any way you measure it, I shouldn’t like this recording. And in the context of when I purchased it at Jerry’s Record Exchange approximately twenty five years ago, the math of me should have produced a recoil reaction when I first gave a listen to 45th Parallel. But quite the opposite occurred, and now when I think about the music that has meant the most to me, this 1989 Oregon recording comes immediately to mind.
I was just getting started on my exploration of the modern jazz scene. My addiction to jazz of the bop and swing eras was well established, as was a healthy dependence on hearing the avant-garde, free, spiritual and cosmic jazz that followed. But for anything 1990 and later, I was a relative newbie. It was sometime around 1995 that I scooped up Oregon’s 45th Parallel. I’m not entirely sure why I purchased it. Best I can piece together, I was familiar with some of the musicians who comprised the world jazz vanguard ensemble at that time… specifically guitarist Ralph Towner and percussionist Trilok Gurtu. But I believe this was my first purchase of something by the Oregon ensemble.
It is very fusion-y. Almost over the top, at times. Opening track “Pageant” is the first such evidence of this album trait. That right there should’ve had me selling the CD back for store credit. That spasmodic fusion cry pushing a syrupy melody on ahead, that would’ve been more than enough to crack the will of my 1995-Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry-loving-self. These days it’s a bit different for me, as my listening tastes have changed… as they do for us all. But back then, I wanted something with some edge, and if it was going to be something pretty, it had to peel off rustic and serene, and not bright and shiny. But I persevered through that first tune, and something about subsequent track “Hand in Hand” got its hooks in me.
It’s that sighed melody, and how it rises and falls like the gentle breathing of a deep sleeper along to the muffled chatter of a percussive dialog as susurrant as crickets conversing beneath a full moon. It got to me then, and it still gets to me now. There’s something so organic and genuine about that song. It hits me not unlike the Codona trio of Don Cherry, Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos. That similarity shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Walcott was a member of Oregon back in its early days, and the Codona trio traveled similar jazz territory as that of Oregon. But the 90’s Oregon was a different beast.
The cheerful “Riding on the D Train” didn’t dissuade me, even though it returned with that syrupy fusion sound. I dunno. Even today when I listen to this tune, it connects plenty strong with me. And there’s really no mystery to it… I adore a beautiful melody, and that’s gonna hold true even if the way it’s expressed instrumentally isn’t normally something to my liking. I think, too, it has to do with how much of this album sounds like something meant to be listened to in the hours before the sun rises.
I make that claim after extensive testing of the hypothesis. There was a time when I would rise at 4am… long before the sun would do the same and light up the winter Denver sky with all shades of pinks and oranges and blues, like an everyday miracle, and make the Rocky Mountains sit out on the horizon like the final passage to reach heaven. This was a few years after purchasing 45th Parallel, and I would wake naturally at 4am (god knows how, but back then I was). It was a bittersweet time for me. I was as plugged into the electrical flow of life as at any time in my existence, but I was also channeling some painful waves of despair and loneliness and need. The highs and lows went to extremes, and most time I couldn’t tell which end of the spectrum I was situated upon at any one moment. But everything felt so damn intense, even the most mundane activities. I think that was why I woke naturally at 4am during those days… it was like mind, body and soul all conspired to get me in a place when my whole world was quiet, when darkness was only broken by the thin streaks of blue light from floor lamps, when my mind was free of turmoil and volatility, and the only sound was the breeze rattling the windows and the radiator with its strangely tranquil hiss. Well, there was one other sound… 45th Parallel. It snapped right into place with everything.
And no song accomplished this any better than “Beneath an Evening Sky.” The Ralph Towner composition (making an appearance on his excellent 1979 recording Old Friends, New Friends) is one of two songs that I most associate with the predawn Denver phase. The song honors such moments, when the stillness of night should be enhanced, not shattered.
The composition has gone through several renditions, by Oregon members and entirely different musicians, but the version on 45th Parallel will always be dear to me, a song that was exactly what I needed in just the nick of time… night after night after night. It flooded my heart with the most sublime joy, almost lovingly, and, sometimes, bringing tears for, at least a while, all the right reasons. And it always elicited a smile. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, feeling so much at peace that I don’t want to lose it by falling back asleep. It is at times like this when I can feel myself transported back to those days, and the sound of “Beneath an Evening Sky” flirts with the edge of my consciousness, and I can almost hear it, though no music is playing. That song is imprinted in my timeline as deeply as the sound of my own heartbeat murmuring quietly and contentedly in my peaceful hours before the day returned and all it brought with it.
The song that followed it next on the album had quite a different impact on me, ranging far closer to my recoil response to the openkng track. The title “Chihuahua Dreams” really sums it up. On an album that is practically woven from the fabric of deep sleep, it still has a couple tracks that yip of a wakefulness that is just a bit out of place. Truth be told, when I listened to this album in the predawn hours, I would skip past both this track and opening tune “Pageant.” This wasn’t as easy to do as one would expect. I originally owned this album on cassette, so skipping ahead took a bit of timing and practice to get it just right. Conveniently, the two tracks I disliked for these hours led off each side of the cassette, making the maneuver a bit simpler for my sleepy head at 4am. God help me, but I think I still have that cassette. I don’t know why, really, except that the attachment to the music that most affects us sometimes manifests as a physical connection to the object associated with it. We hold onto these things.
“Urumchi” is the other album track aside from “Beneath an Evening Sky” that I most associate with this pre-dawn stage of my Denver life. It twitters with life far more than its counterpart, and its recitation of melody has an ominous undercurrent like a reminder of the danger that hides within peaceful nighttime darkness. But most of all, the music is like moonlight, a presence of stark beauty, but also cold and distant and mysterious. “Urumchi” was all of these things, and the perfect accompaniment to the moment.
As strange as it sounds, it almost feels wrong to listen to this music in the daylight, as if I threaten to dispel the magic that hangs so thickly in the air around me when the music plays in the middle of the night, when even the moon grows heavy with sleep.
Ralph Towner shines on “Les Douzilles,” his guitar like a campfire beacon off on the horizon, sparks and embers dancing at the edges of the darkness. I had the wonderful experience of seeing Towner perform recently at the 2019 Big Ears Festival. It was a solo performance in a big beautiful church in downtown Knoxville, and watching him play guitar surrounded by stained glass, hanging lamps, cathedral ceilings and a palpable solemnity upon every breath, I thought of his opening to this piece. And I thought how this man had created music for a time I desperately needed that music, and now here we were, both alive and forging an even stronger connection between artist and music and listener, and it was happening in a place I’d never have imagined back in Denver, over twenty years ago.
The album’s homestretch begins with “Bombay Vice,” a rambunctious song that was a bit more lively than ideal for that time of morning, but it was always a nice bit of contrast to really frame just how tranquil most of the other album tracks truly were. The album reaches its conclusion most appropriately with the soothing “Pageant (Epilogue),” a mirror opposite to the lively “Pageant” opener. The piece only lasts for a couple minutes, but it is the lullaby ending for an album that was, for me, a coda to dreams.
It is an album like 45th Parallel why I blog about music, sharing news of what I’ve discovered and what I love, because that music might, for you, be something that leaves its imprint on your own timeline, as this album has mine, and give you something to love.
Your album personnel: Ralph Towner (12-string and classical guitars, piano, synthesizers), Paul McCandless (piccolo sax, soprano sax, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet), Trilok Gurtu (tabla, drums, percussion, voice), Ralph Moore (bass) and guest: Nancy King (vocals).
Released in 1989 on Portrait Records/CBS Records.
Available at Amazon.
Be sure to check out the artist site.
Apr 18 2019
Ralph Towner at Big Ears Festival 2019: Hearts go still
From the palpable shock and astonishment that swept through the church, it was obvious that most of us hadn’t known: Not long ago, Ralph Towner had been through heart surgery. The guitarist relayed this information on the wings of a joke, as he introduced the next piece of that evening… a rendition of the standard “My Foolish Heart.” That’s the kind of evening it was. Towner had the audience wrapped around his finger. His guitar was simply a tool for enchantment, and all of us were locked in. But he also kept a smile on our faces. Sometimes because of a whimsical phrase on guitar. Sometimes because a familiar tune elicited pleasant associations. And, sometimes, the smile was the cause-effect pairing with a joke. But he had us all, for any and every reason.
Towner performed on a Friday evening at St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Knoxville, TN. His show was one of the highlights of Big Ears Festival 2019, and one I’ll never forget.
All it takes are a couple phrases of a familiar song to send me adrift in memories, and back to a time when the music became imprinted my timeline. And since all of these songs are familiar, it means I’m perpetually fighting the gravitational pull of the past, trying hopelessly to stay rooted in the moment. Because, damn, Ralph Towner is thirty feet away, playing guitar in an environment of superb acoustics, stained glass all around, and nothing between me and the notes. A minute into a new piece, and I’d suddenly hear it through stereo speakers in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains or an autumn day with a ceiling of cloudy Chicago gloom contrasting with the brilliant explosion of autumn colors and the crunch of leaves beneath my feet. And then, suddenly, I’m transported back into the present moment of the church as the song reaches the homestretch.
[Ralph Towner’s 2017 ECM Records release My Foolish Heart is available at Amazon]
This was my second show of Big Ears Festival 2019, and both had taken place in a church. And no different than the Harold Budd, Mary Lattimore & Nief-Norf show earlier that afternoon at Church Street United Methodist, the St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral was a gorgeous venue matched perfectly with this gorgeous music.
It’s impossible not draw comparisons between the masterful craftsmanship of the stained glass and church architecture and the musicianship of Towner with his guitar, and, by extension, the lofty plateaus of creativity aspired to, and achieved, by the artists on both building and music.
There’s a majesty to the music of Ralph Towner. If the totality of one’s interface is, like mine, through the vehicle of studio recordings, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all of this electricity is simply the product of this man and his guitar, hunched over in concentration, and channeling everything inside that yearns to manifest into the world as sound. It’s weeks later, and I still find myself astonished at having ended up in place I’d never imagined life would take me and it just so happens, Ralph Towner is thirty feet away and playing his guitar. The memory freezes me in time, observing it all over again.
By davesumner • Live Jazz, Other Writing • 0 • Tags: Big Ears Festival, Knoxville (TN), Live Music, Ralph Towner, St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral