Ralph Towner

Ralph Towner (born March 1, 1940, Chehalis, Washington) is an American multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and bandleader. He plays the twelve-string guitar, classical guitar, piano, synthesizer, percussion and trumpet.[1] Towner has made notable recordings of jazz, third stream under strong influence of folk and world music.

Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner in concert with Paolo Fresu, Treibhaus Innsbruck 2010
Background information
Birth nameRalph Towner
Born (1940-03-01) March 1, 1940
Chehalis, Washington, United States
GenresJazz, classical, world, folk
Occupation(s)Guitarist, arranger, bandleader, composer
Instruments12-string guitar, classical guitar, piano, synthesizer, percussion, trumpet
Years active1960s–present
Associated actsOregon, Weather Report, Gary Burton, Paul Winter, Gary Peacock, Jan Garbarek, John Abercrombie, Glen Moore, Bill Bruford, Eddie Gómez, Slava Grigoryan, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Paolo Fresu, Jeremy Steig, Paul McCandless, Collin Walcott


Towner was born into a musical family in Chehalis, Washington. His mother was a piano teacher and his father a trumpet player. Towner learned to improvise on the piano at the age of three. He began his career as a conservatory-trained classical pianist, attending the University of Oregon from 1958-1963, where he also studied composition with Homer Keller.[2] He studied classical guitar at the Vienna Academy of Music with Karl Scheit from 1963-64 and 1967-68.

He joined world music pioneer Paul Winter's "Consort" ensemble in the late 1960s. He first played jazz in New York City in the late 1960s as a pianist and was strongly influenced by the renowned jazz pianist Bill Evans. He began improvising on classical and 12-string guitars in the late 1960s/early 1970s and formed alliances with musicians who had worked with Evans, including flautist Jeremy Steig, bassists Eddie Gómez, Marc Johnson, Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.[3][4]

Along with bandmates Paul McCandless, Glen Moore, and Collin Walcott, Towner left the Winter Consort in 1970 to form the group Oregon, which over the course of the 1970s issued a number of highly influential records mixing folk music, Indian classical forms, and avant-garde jazz-influenced free improvisation. At the same time, Towner began a longstanding relationship with the influential ECM record label, which has released virtually all of his non-Oregon recordings since his 1972 debut as a leader Trios / Solos. Towner has also made numerous appearances as a sideman, perhaps most famously on jazz fusion heavyweights Weather Report's 1972 album I Sing the Body Electric.[5]

Since the early 1990s, Towner has lived in Italy, first in Palermo and then in Rome.[6]


Towner eschews amplification, using only 6-string nylon-string and 12-string steel-string guitars. As a result, he tends to avoid high-volume musical environments, preferring small groups of mostly acoustic instruments that emphasize dynamics and group interplay. Towner also obtains a percussive effect (e.g., "Donkey Jamboree" from Slide Show with Gary Burton) from the guitar by weaving a matchbook among the strings at the neck of the instrument.[7] Both with Oregon and as a solo artist, Towner has made significant use of overdubbing, allowing him to play piano (or synthesizer) and guitar on the same track; his most notable use of the technique came on his 1974 album Diary, in which he plays guitar-piano duets with himself on most of the album's 8 tracks.[8] In the 1980s, Towner began using the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer extensively[9] but has since de-emphasized his synthesizer and piano playing in favor of guitar.


Two lunar craters were named by the Apollo 15 astronauts after two of Towner's compositions, "Icarus" and "Ghost Beads."[10][11]


As leader

With Atmosphere

  • Atmospheres Featuring Clive Stevens & Friends (Capitol, 1974)
  • Voyage to Uranus (Capitol, 1974)

With Oregon

  • Music of Another Present Era (Vanguard, 1972)
  • Distant Hills (Vanguard, 1973)
  • Winter Light (Vanguard, 1974)
  • In Concert (Vanguard, 1975)
  • Together (Vanguard, 1976)
  • Friends (Vanguard, 1977)
  • Out of the Woods (Elektra, 1978)
  • Violin (Vanguard, 1978)
  • Roots in the Sky (Elektra, 1979)
  • Moon and Mind (Vanguard, 1979)
  • In Performance (BGO, 1980)
  • Our First Record (Vanguard, 1980)
  • Oregon (ECM, 1983)
  • Crossing (ECM, 1985)
  • Ecotopia (ECM, 1987)
  • 45th Parallel (Portrait, 1989)
  • Always, Never, and Forever (veraBra, 1991)
  • Troika (veraBra, 1994)
  • Beyond Words (Chesky, 1995)
  • Northwest Passage (ECM, 1997)
  • Music for a Midsummer Night's Dream (Oregon Music 1998)
  • Oregon in Moscow (ECM, 2000)
  • Live at Yoshi's (ECM, 2002)
  • Prime (C.A.M. Jazz, 2005)
  • 1000 Kilometers (C.A.M. Jazz, 2007)
  • In Stride (C.A.M. Jazz, 2010)
  • Family Tree (C.A.M. Jazz, 2012)
  • Live in New Orleans (Hi Hat, 2016)
  • Lantern (C.A.M. Jazz, 2017)

With Paul Winter Consort

  • Road (A&M, 1970)
  • Icarus (Epic, 1972)
  • Earthdance (A&M, 1977)

As sideman or guest


  1. "Biography". March 1, 1940. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  2. "Oregon ComposersWatch: Homer Keller". composerswatch.proscenia.net. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  3. Feather, Leonard (2007). The biographical encyclopedia of jazz. Gitler, Ira. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 650. ISBN 9780195320008. OCLC 123233012.
  4. "Ralph Towner | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  5. "ECM Records - Ralph Towner". ECM Records. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  6. Jazz, All About. "Ralph Towner: The Accidental Guitarist". All About Jazz. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  7. Lesson, Dale Turner 2018-03-19T14:53:03Z. "Ralph Towner's Nylon and 12-String Craftsmanship". guitarworld. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  8. "Diary - Ralph Towner". ECM Records. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  9. Grillo, Tyran (December 20, 2011). "Ralph Towner: Blue Sun (ECM 1250)". Between Sound and Space: ECM Records and Beyond. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  10. "The Consort". Paul Winter. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  11. "Now he's over the moon about Icarus". The Sydney Morning Herald. November 25, 2002. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
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