He launched his jazz career as a Bill Evans-inspired pianist, then travelled to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit, the renowned Austrian guitarist, lutenist and teacher. In New York City in the late 1960s, he freelanced on both piano and guitar, before co-founding the band Oregon in 1970, with Collin Walcott, Glenn Moore and Paul McCandless – all of whom would appear on his ECM debut, Trios/Solos, in 1972. Towner’s recordings for ECM have included solo albums, duo projects (with John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock, Gary Burton and Paolo Fresu), bands under his direction (including Solstice with Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, Jon Christensen) and discs with Oregon. Towner has also contributed to outstanding albums by Keith Jarrett (In The Light), Jan Garbarek (Dis), Kenny Wheeler(Deer Wan) and Egberto Gismonti (Sol do Meio Dia).
In the last few years activities have included many concerts with Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, their album Chiaroscuro garnering much positive press along the way (“Lushly resonant guitar and stately trumpet, a masterful match of color and texture” – The Village Voice). Another important association is with the guitar trio with Austria’s Wolfgang Muthspiel and Kazakhstan-born Australian player Slava Grigoryan. “Three guitarists from three different continents with three very different disciplines unite for this breathtakingly beautiful trio outing,” wrote Down Beat of the album Travel Guide.
Meanwhile, solo guitar work continues. In November 2016 Ralph Towner headlined an ECM Weekend in Cork, Ireland. In February and March 2017 he is in on tour in the US.