critic’s pick 116

On two sublime new ECM recordings – a duo session featuring Ralph Towner and trio concert outing led by Paul Motian – we hear luscious ties to the sort of Nordic ambience the label is best known for as well as fun, spacious departures.

Washington-born guitarist Towner, one of ECM’s mainstay artists, has been making wonderfully evocative music there since 1973. Chiaroscuro is best described as a return to a form Towner never fully left. The difference is that instead of coloring his music with modest electric keyboard orchestrations, as he has on most of his albums since 1982’s Blue Sun (save for a few remarkable solo guitar records), Chiaroscuro teams Towner with Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. The latter’s light but purposeful tone is a very complimentary foil for Towner’s feathery yet dramatic acoustics.

On the opening Wistful Thinking – a tune originally cut as a solo guitar piece for Towner’s 1992 ECM album, Open Letter – the interplay between acoustic guitar and trumpet possesses a modest classical flavor. Fresu, though, echoes with an almost folkish, European feel, a sound that mirrors the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

Elsewhere, the muse of Miles Davis is summoned on a stately version of Blue in Green, where the unimposing but very defined warmth of Towner’s playing nicely supports the Miles accents summoned by Frescu. Two Minatures and the wearier Postlude, though, nicely shake things up with Frescu still embracing the Miles muse as the tunes tighten and toughen around more percussive guitar patterns.

Drummer Motian’s alliance with ECM actually predates (by one year) Towner’s stay, even though he spent nearly two decades (from 1985 to 2005) recording for other labels. As a wildly prolific bandleader, he marches to no one’s groove other than his own. On a fine new live album titled Lost in a Dream, he subtly creates drama within the spacious designs of his music.

As a result, there are a few echoes of the studied, pastoral ECM sound here, especially in the way Motian barely plays above a whisper on Birdsong so pianist Jason Moran and tenor sax great Chris Potter can define the atmospheric bliss.

But there is more than that going on here. Cut at New York’s famed Village Vanguard (a performance home for the drummer ever since he was immortalized on famed recordings by Bill Evans cut there nearly 50 years ago), Lost in a Dream is an unhurried and uncompromising delight. It navigates around the rumbling bop breaks in Abacus, offers sleepy but substantial blues exchanges on Blue Midnight and serenades with lullaby-like sweetness on the unlikely titled Casino.

Lost in a Dream offers music that is exactly that. It bends bop finesse into dream-like meditations that swing with a quiet, nocturnal sway.

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