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John Abercrombie / Ralph Towner

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John Abercrombie / Ralph Towner - Sargasso Sea [ECM ECM-1-1080] (1976)

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John Abercrombie / Ralph Towner


Sargasso Sea

Released: 1976
Label: ECM
Catalog: ECM-1-1080
Genre: Jazz
Note: Polydor imprint on back cover

T R A C K L I S T:
01 Fable
02 Avenue
03 Sargasso Sea
04 Over And Gone
05 Elbow Room
06 Staircase
07 Romantic Descension
08 Parasol
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Album Review

Michael G. Nastos []

John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner have forever been tied to the ECM roster as leaders and individualists, and initially it was hard to imagine their styles being compatible. As an amplified electric guitarist, Abercrombie's steely, sometime unearthly sound was an uneven puzzle piece alongside the graphic, stoic, classically oriented style of Towner. Yet on Sargasso Sea, there are several instances where they merge together as one, feeling their way through pure improvisations, angular and colorful motifs, or thematic nuances and a certain strata of consciousness that makes a world of common sense. There are selections where they both play acoustic guitars, but it is mostly Abercrombie's hopped up sound through an amp over Towner's bold and beautiful unplugged instrument, tossing in a piano overdubbed on two tracks. Where selections such as ''Fable'' are folksy and far from overwrought, ''Avenue'' lopes gracefully and the exceptional ''Parasol'' is semi-lyrical. Abercrombie's guitar stands in stark contrast on the near macabre title track, and more so during ''Elbow Room'' with heavier moans, cries, vibrato, echoplex slide incursions, and Towner as an afterthought. The best track ''Staircase,'' with twin acoustic guitars, sports tricky intricate lines and changes only virtuosi can achieve. In laid-back surrender for ''Romantic Descension,'' and in passive voicings on ''Over & Gone,'' Towner need not strain to make his brilliant voice heard clearly. An uneven recording for many listeners and critics, Sargasso Sea deserves a second chance, not as an absolutely flawed, imperfect, or unbalanced effort. Like a tale of two cities, it stands as a unique project, perhaps deserving a more refined approach. Though there was a follow-up album released, a third-time's-the-charm contemporary revisit from these masterful guitar geniuses would be welcome.

John Abercrombie / Ralph Towner's Biography

John Abercrombie

Chris Kelsey []

John Abercrombie's tying together of jazz's many threads made him one of the most influential acoustic and electric guitarists of the 1970s and early '80s; his recordings for ECM helped define that label's progressive chamber jazz reputation. Abercrombie's style drew upon all manner of contemporary improvised music; his style was essentially jazz-based, but also displayed a more than passing familiarity with forms that ranged from folk and rock to Eastern and Western art musics.

Abercrombie attended Boston's Berklee College of Music from 1962 to 1966. While at Berklee, the guitarist toured with bluesman Johnny Hammond. After relocating to New York in 1969, Abercrombie spent time in groups led by drummers Chico Hamilton and Billy Cobham. It was with the latter's Spectrum group that Abercrombie first received widespread attention. Abercrombie's first album as leader was Timeless, a trio album with drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer. That was followed by Gateway, another trio with DeJohnette, and bassist Dave Holland replacing Hammer. Cat 'n' MouseAbercrombie continued to be active as the 21st century opened, releasing Cat 'n' Mouse in 2002, Class Trip in 2004, A Nice Idea (with pianist Andy LaVerne) in 2005, Structures (recorded with a single microphone) in 2006, and Third Quartet in 2007. Wait Till You See Her appeared in 2009. In 2011, the guitarist issued Speak to Me, a duet recording with pianist Marc Copland on the German Pirouet label. He followed it with the quartet recording Within a Song for ECM. His band on the date included drummer Joey Baron, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and bassist Drew Gress. Another quartet session appeared on the label in October of 2013. Entitled 39 Steps, its lineup contained only one change, as Copland replaced Lovano. Uncharacteristically, he released Inspired, a collaborative setting with fellow guitarists Rale Micic, Peter Bernstein, and Lage Lund, for Artistshare in 2016, before returning to ECM with his regular quartet for Up and Coming early the following year; it would be his final recording. After years of health problems, including a stroke suffered in early 2017, Abercrombie succumbed to heart failure at home on August 22. He was 72.

Ralph Towner

Scott Yanow []

One of the founders of Oregon, Ralph Towner is one of the few modern jazz musicians to specialize in acoustic guitar. His playing often stretches beyond the boundaries of conventional jazz into world music and is quite distinctive. He started playing piano when he was three and trumpet at five, performing in a dance band when he was 13. Towner studied classical guitar in Vienna and played with classical chamber groups in the mid-'60s.

After moving to New York in 1969, Towner worked with Jimmy Garrison, Jeremy Steig, and Paul Winter's Winter Consort (1970-1971). In the latter group, Towner first met up with Collin Walcott, Glen Moore, and Paul McCandless, and in 1971 they broke away to form Oregon, a highly versatile group ranging from jazz and free improvisations to folk music. Towner (who guested with Weather Report in 1971 and played with Gary Burton a bit during 1974-1975) performed and recorded with Oregon extensively in the years after the group's formation, in addition to recording as a leader and with many other artists on the ECM label.

While on tour in 2003 with guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, Towner encountered Kazakhstan classical guitarist Slava Grigoryan, who suggested a collaboration. Towner assembled a tour in 2005, which presented each man as a soloist, in duets, and in trios. They began to play and tour together as a ''band'' whenever time would permit. The group's progress was first documented on From a Dream, issued on Muthspiel's Material label. Towner brought the project to ECM in 2012. The trio recorded in Lugano, Switzerland with producer Manfred Eicher, and released Travel Guide in the fall of 2013. Three years later, Towner joined Argentine saxophonist Javier Girotto and the ensemble Aires Tango for Duende. In 2017, Towner returned to the solo guitar format for My Foolish Heart on ECM.
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