Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti bewitch the Barbican


It's quite rare these days that one comes across a guitarist that plays the blues on the twelve-string, which is why it was so startling to hear Oregon founding member Ralph Towner insinuate a blues theme on his booming 12-string guitar. It turned out not to be any old 12-bar figure, though, but a soulful recital of bassist Charlie Mingus' blues-ballad, 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat'. The American guitarist's solo set was replete with such instances of wonderful unexpectedness.

The evening was hosted by not one, but two guitar giants, both displaying two very different approaches to the instrument. Brazilian virtuoso Egberto Gismonti (pictured) was Towner's counterpart in this rare double-bill, and he took to his instrument like a rally driver takes to his car, swerving crazily at breakneck speed through various techniques, barely pausing for a moment's rest. Towner, on the other hand, valued breathing space and subtlety over relentless instrumental stunting. In all honesty, the idea of sitting through two back-to-back solo recitals can seem like a bit of a drag. But any apprehensions were dispelled by Towner and Gismonti's masterful grasp of their art, both of whom created vivid, intricate and constantly fascinating sound worlds from the wood-and-strings simplicity of the humble acoustic guitar.

Towner utilised his self-confessed 'beautiful' 12-string on three brilliant occasions; on the aforementioned Mingus cover, on a reworking of Bill Evans' 'My Foolish Heart', and on the almost-geologic power of 'Solitary Woman.' With its deeply resonant drones and vertiginous sense of space, the folk-rock tinged latter conjured mind's eye images of America's great canyons. After finishing the song, Towner highlighted the drawbacks of his 12-string: "It's a beautiful instrument, but it murders your fingernails". He then pulled out an emery board and proceeded to file his picking fingers. Aptly, from beginning to end, his was a smooth, well manicured set. While Towner took excursions into arid soundscapes, he ultimately seemed at home amid the pastoral splendour of 'The Prowler' and lucid Oregon classic 'If'.

Egberto Gismonti's frenetic set was as wild and free as the frizzy hair that streamed from under his trademark red head gear. Gismonti didn't utter a word throughout, instead allowing his 10-string guitar and piano to do all the talking. And they not only talked, but, in Gismonti's hands, seemed to froth maniacally.The self-confessed "piano player that plays guitar"set about blending Brazillian choro music, classical and jazz via turbulent, melodic crosswinds. This was definitely music to get swept away by. In the end, though, it was Towner's calming, suggestive tones that really took your breath away.

– Jamie Skey