At first glance, an album consisting of nothing but duets between trumpet and acoustic guitar may seem a bit odd. But with Chiaroscuro, Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu have managed to pull it off. In fact, the combination works so well, one wonders why nobody had thought of doing this before.
The reason the record is so effective is the talent of the two musicians involved. Guitarist Ralph Towner has been recording for decades, most notably as a member of Oregon and as a sideman with such powerhouses as Weather Report. He met Paolo Fresu fifteen years ago in his adopted home of Italy and was immediately impressed.
Towner had been commissioned to write a piece for a festival in Sardinia, and Fresu was among the local musicians who played on it. The composition was titled “Punta Giara,” and it appears here in a newly arranged form for trumpet and 12-string guitar. There is a marked Spanish influence at play on many of these songs, and “Punta Giara” is no exception.
In fact, with the playing style of Fresu, coupled with the lovely bed of sound Towner provides, I am often reminded of a classic Miles Davis album. One of my all-time favorites of his is Sketches Of Spain (1960), and even though that one is heavily orchestrated at times, there are definite similarities on Chiaroscuro.
Towner and Fresu make the connection crystal-clear with their version of Davis’ classic “Blue In Green,” from Kind Of Blue (1959). It has always been such a lovely song, and their take on it is a nice one. The fact that Fresu’s trumpet sounds so much like Miles’ helps a lot. But Fresu has never been shy about admitting his adoration of Miles Davis, going so far as remaking Porgy And Bess in 2001.
One of the more interesting tracks here is titled “Doubled Up.” Towner has tuned his guitar down to make it work as both guitar and bass at once, hence the title. Meanwhile, Fresu’s trumpet comments on the proceedings in a sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive manner. It all comes together quite well.
A couple of older Towner tunes are reworked. The earliest is “Zephyr,” which dates back to his days as a member of Oregon. The second is the beautiful opening track “Wistful Thinking,” from his solo album Open Letter (1992).
As the title indicates, “Sacred Place” is a somewhat meditative cut, and there are actually two versions of it on the album. Both are relaxing, pretty, and always interesting. Indeed the whole album is that way. Chiaroscuro may not be the one to play if you are in the mood to rock out. But as a tonic to soothe the soul — without any of the new age predictability that term might imply — this is the one to put on.
Every one of the eleven tracks are recommended, for various reasons. Chiaroscuro is an off-beat pairing that works better than probably anyone involved could have predicted. Highly enjoyable, and highly recommended.