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On ‘My Foolish Heart,’ Ralph Towner makes a jazz classic his own

There is a certain selflessness to Ralph Towner titling his first solo acoustic guitar album in 11 years “My Foolish Heart.” Of the recording’s 13 compositions, it is the only one he didn’t pen. But the tune’s history is rich, pervading every crevice of the stately beauty that defines this astonishing project and reinforcing an essential blueprint Towner has followed during his 44-year tenure with the European label ECM.

Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, “My Foolish Heart” is a proven jazz standard. Among the many pioneers to reshape it as a work of their own is piano great Bill Evans, whose vanguard trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian provided the work with a contemplative grace in 1961. Towner, who has regularly doubled as a pianist through the decades, has long admired Evans’ cunning and grace, enforcing a lyricism that has been a constant within his solo and ensemble projects, as well as his work with the long-running band Oregon, without sounding imitative.

Towner’s take on “My Foolish Heart” is, frankly, just as evocative as Evans’ immortal rendering. It’s set to solo guitar, and the precision and patience that sweep through the playing are more classically rooted. Yet the melodic warmth is always embraced. That same approach runs through the rest of the album, striking a balance of classical and jazz (evident especially during the 12-string guitar patterns of “Clarion Guitar,” which hark back to earlier ECM days) but possessing the same myriad emotive casts — from playful to bittersweet to slightly ominous — that have long distinguished Towner’s playing.

On “Dolomiti Dance,” an Italian-accented dance melody (Towner is a Washington native but has long resided in Rome) is repeated with modest variation to affirm a melody in sunny motion. “Blue as in Bley,” a requiem for pianist Paul Bley, who died a month before the album’s recording session last winter in Switzerland, flips the premise for a darker and slightly more dissonant presentation that adheres to the album’s light, exact and emotive cast.

The album ends by revisiting a 2003 Towner tune that led off Oregon’s album “Beyond Words”. Titled “Rewind,” the original version was propelled largely by bass and reeds with guitar as a primarily rhythmic device until it was allowed to set sail at the halfway point. The version that closes “My Foolish Heart” is taken at a slightly slower pace. But without the additional instrumentation, the newer version sounds, if anything, more complete. It indulges in patient, unforced lyricism, allowing the performance, as is the case with all the music on “My Foolish Heart,” to beautifully reflect the tone and technique of a true guitar sage at the height of his understated power.

Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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