Amid the tributes and celebrations of varying generations that fill the JVC Jazz Festival, guitarist Ralph Towner is undoubtedly responsible for the quietest moments of the 12-day fest. Using just a classical guitar and a 12-string Wednesday to perform his own compositions, the standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the Miles Davis-Bill Evans modal work “Nardis,” Towner delivered one subliminal treat after another, further cementing his reputation as one of jazz’s most distinctive guitarists.
A founding member of the organic “jazz meets the East meets the forest” ensemble Oregon, which will tour Europe this summer and fall, the 66-year-old was the rare artist in the fest performing in the style of his latest disc, the beautiful “Time Line” on ECM. He opened with one of the disc’s more bubbly works, “If,” a number that had the air of Joni Mitchell’s “Hissing of Summer Lawns.” Like Mitchell, Towner searches for — and quite often lands on — a spot that’s derived from a musical style with little in common with jazz, be it folk music or finger-picked blues or the standard classical guitar repertoire. On “Jamaica Stopover,” for example, he evoked an island spirit by starting a step removed from Davis’ “So What” and Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” and blending the two.
Towner’s intonation was impeccable at Zankel, his 12-string work remarkably confined to single, evocative notes rather than the usual strum-and-sustain technique of most players. On “Solitary Woman,” from his 2000 solo album “Anthem,” he contrasted bright passages with bass notes that recalled footsteps scooting down a hallway; on Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” he treated the number as John Fahey might have, with a reverence for the melody and the improvisations associated with its many recordings.
The coolness of Evans’ piano style was in evidence throughout the 70-minute perf, even when he picked up speed and dazzled with his ability to leap off chords and string together deft lead runs. Towner is a guitarist who never swings, even when he interprets a number like “Come Rain.” It’s his commingling of elements that makes his distinct music unquestionably jazz.