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Robben Ford

Ford & Back : Talking Blues with Robben Ford

Image: George B Wells

www.robbenford.com

It’s 1981 and like a lot of players I am on a bit of a fusion kick, not least because the radio is playing glassy sounding pop hits all at the same tempo for pasty-faced herberts in primary colours and with sulky faces to mime badly to on ‘Top Of The Pops’, on TV. The stereo is my refuge and import albums are killing my monthly budget…but needs must. I walk into my local-to-work music shop and the man in charge (also an in-demand drummer) cries “ Ah – got a good one for you ! Just listen to this bass player ! – Oh and the guitar player is classy too….’  It’s the debut album from The Yellowjackets The bassist is the fantastic muso (and now good friend) Jim Haslip but the axeman is indeed classy and is a guy called Robben Ford….

Winter 2012 and I am meeting up with Robben at his London hotel to talk mainly about what we might call his ‘looking back’ new album of blues cuts featuring the most splendid musicians and some unusual / obscure song choices. As usual I have been listening to the record and have some questions and points to raise.  Ford is an affable and perhaps initially somewhat shy chap. He doesn’t have a guitar with him so I can’t ask about an arcane Em 13th chord shape he sometimes uses, but never mind……..

FH: Welcome back to London, Robben

RF: Thank you, Pete – glad to be here

And you’re here to actually play at a special gig this evening and prepare the way for some

live dates we hope you’ll be doing in 2013

Yeah – I’ll be back over in April, for sure

What sort of band will you be bringing over ? presumably something to reflect what you’re up to on your latest album ….

Yeah very much so – the new record is upright bass, drums, B3 organ, myself and guitar of course and on the record there’s also trombone..and we probably won’t have the trombone player along with us, it’ll probably just be a quartet and yes we’ll be playing predominantly music from the new record ( ‘Bringing It Back Home’ on Mascot Music / Provogue – PS)

(We speak about The Yellowjackets for a while, as it was the first time I heard Ford play)

Right on ! I did basically put that band together, to make my first solo record…1979

or thereabouts..for Elektra..and we continued to do some playing, in Southern California..Jim and the drummer Ricky Lawson were unable to tour the album..I think they were playing with Al Jarreau or somethin’..making a ton of money..so Russell Ferrante and I went out and did a tour for about five weeks on the album.and then we did continue to play with the band a little bit, when we could..but my manager had the idea to shop a deal separately for The Yellowjackets, as an instrumental band. Now I was moving towards vocal music already..

It was the height of the fusion era wasn’t it ? Return To Forever..

Yep, Weather Report..and so we did, we got a separate deal for the band, they signed to Warner Bros .and we made that first record..it was nice for me because I was just one contributor..both Jimmy and Russell wrote..

You weren’t carrying the record but you were very much part of the highlights of it

Yeah, I was a part of it…and I enjoyed that

What guitar were you playing then, it sounded like a Gibson

Oh there’s all kinds of guitars on there ! Maybe five different ones on that album..a Strat, a Yamaha, Gibson 335

Well that’s what I recognised…..hey one of my favourite cuts of your own  sounds like Albert King crashing an Ojays session !

(Laughs) Money money money – that one !

That’s on the ‘Keep On Running’ set which I really like

A British producer workin’ with me on that one..John

There’s a quite different slant on that record – compared with ‘Havana Moon’, say

Oh Yes – a British slant on it and the whole sound..he brought the Freddie King influence in, y’know..Otis Rush style on ‘Homework’….’For The Love of Money’ was his idea..’Keep On Running’, too…

Image: George B Wells

Well thanks, now let’s get to the new release which is ‘Bringing It Back Home’ which for various reasons I think is a great title for it

Well this label Mascot /Provogue has Robert Cray, Joe Bonamassa, Leslie West, Steve Lukather, Eric Johnson..they are after Larry Carlton..I signed with them, this is my first record with them and they are a wonderful company, they really have a lot of respect for their artists, treat them right…and so I’m very pleased

Well Robben if you’re comfortable, you make better music..OK now ‘Everything’..I am assuming this is your vocal here

Oh sure, of course

The phrasing of it is reminiscent of Lou Rawls…which is a good thing !  – such a relaxed vibe, sound like players with nothing to prove

Now that is a very good way of looking at it, because the basic idea here was to put together a group of guys who can play this music so naturally..there’s no pretext, there’s no agenda..just a bunch of great songs, a set of great musicians and everybody plays these songs as if they wrote them themselves

Well I listen to this and it’s got echoes of the great Johnny Otis Show touring band..which featured his lad Shuggie Otis doing his own set..and also a band called Stuff with Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, Richard Tee..so it sounds closer to that a opposed to people trying to prove they’ve got the chops

And that was intentional..Larry Goldings the organist is just fantastic

And it doesn’t particularly sound like it’s the guitarist’s album,.,there’s nobody trying to dominate the sound

That’s true.  It’s consistently interesting and almost a little difficult in a away to talk about this record because words like ‘laidback’ and er ‘simple’…’easy’, y’know….

I haven’t used any of these !

No, you haven’t..they’ve come up in myriad interviews over the last several days..I think you did say ‘relaxed’ ( got me ! PS )….I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, now..maybe the best word is ‘effortless’ …?

Birds Nest Bound’ has very restrained guitar..

(Laughs) It’s intense, man !

But the rhythm section, wow – it’s like John Hammond’s ‘Source Point’ set ….so surefooted and yes there’s a real grip on the music there…ah now there’s trombone on this next cut ‘Fair Child’ , that treading rhythm… now what inspired that ?

Well two of the songs, this being one of them I found on a compilation of rhythm and blues cuts that a friend sent to me..I liked his taste in music and I asked him to send me some songs, y’know ? I was looking for material for the record and God bless him, he gave me like a hundred songs on five cd’s. And I listened to all of it and I found this song ‘Fair Child’ and I didn’t know who it was, I had never heard the song before, it’s from an artist named Willie West who’s from New Orleans and it was written by Allen Toussaint ..so it turns out there are two songs from Allen Toussaint on the record and one from Earl King who is also a NO artist and thus this kinda New Orleans flavor runs through the whole record

Yes, I buy that…

The trombone especially brings that to the sonic palate..

But you know, you have to play for a while before you get that good

Yeah ! that’s what you’re hearing..you’re hearing masterful players, for sure

And at that level, you stop showing off and you work for the song. It’s why my late friend Robert Palmer loved these kind of musicians..

Yes – and the whole environment has to be right..the music, the material, the arrangements have to be right…  to allow for a person to be able to express themselves in the music and not just play the part

‘Oh Virginia’ I really like – is it a demo for James Taylor though ?

That’s the one original on the record. I wouldn’t think of James Taylor personally..but I’m very proud of that song

He’d love it !

(Concedes) Yeah, he might

It’s a little bit different from the other selections.. a lovely track..I don’t have notes with the promo so I didn’t know you’d written that….’Slick Capers Blues’ again it has that very light airy organ sound..now of course you spent some years with Jimmy Witherspoon..and they seem to have left their mark..but you’ve got these faster tempo interludes here

Little Buddy Doyle – ‘Slick Capers’..yeah that’s right, gives the song a bump. What you have to do, with the blues, y’know is get creative with it but keep it within the tradition. So I add that little double-time interlude there between verses and solo’s..plus there’s a little instrumental tag right on the end. Where the instruments play this one little riff and that I actually took off of a Son House record

Track 6 is ‘On That Morning’  some very Wes chords there….

Yep the melody is played in octaves

Very stealthy tempo.it actually sounds slightly sinister..(Laughter)..obviously stand-up bass..so it sounds like it’s looking to be featured in a detective film

Well I can see what you’re saying there !

..as did the second track of the third Jing Chi album you made with Jim and Vinnie C !

Image: George B Wells

This cut ‘Traveller’s Waltz’ is very pastoral, in feel

Ah now that lyric is from a poem my wife wrote..

Your wife’s a singer isn’t she ?

Indeed, Ann Ford ..and she wrote this as a reflection on my life on the road. And I liked it a lot and I took it to Michael McDonald as we were writing songs together at that point and he wrote the music to it

As a coincidence as we just lost him but it does have a slight Terry Callier feel. .a touch of mysticism  ….’Most Likely ‘ the Dylan tune has some ace trombone in there…when did you get into Dylan ?

I guess when ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ hit the radio…1966 ? or thereabouts

If asked what Robben Ford is up to I’d most likely play them this track from your  album, it seems to extract the essence of what you’re trying to do..

Hmm, interesting to hear you say that..I had thought about recording that song for years but once I set the instrumentation for this record I know I wanted to record that song for sure..I do listen to Dylan whenever I am thinking about what I am going to do next..it’s a reference point for me..I like the way Dylan approaches the blues…in some ways he’s the only white person who really did something different with it..he was playing in the tradition pretty much, but lyrically…he just didn’t write that way..so his lyrics take you to a different place

To me ‘Blood On The Tracks’ is a blues record..don’t  like his voice, never have, but that’s his heartbreak diary..to crystallise pain in a story as on ‘Tangled Up In Blue’..

Now that’s an incredible song

‘Trick Bag’- a Dr John vibe here

Earl King tune

Which guitar ? fabulous solo on this..

Thanks ! – it’s the Epiphone Riviera that you see on the cover there

‘Fool’sParadise’…a softer Bobby Bland mood

It’s a Charles Brown song..what brought me to this style was playing Mose Allison songs way back ..always liked him, a lot.. he had that blend of jazz and blues that I dug…general I’ll get on a trajectory and I’ll stay on it for while because I am a musician who is mining a particular point in my development, I am trying to grow as an artist, become a better songwriter, a better singer, to refine my presentation. For me, this is the best record I have ever made- that’s how I feel about it, I’m not just saying that ..I’ve never made a better record than this one…it’s fresh but I’m playing with some of the best musicians out there…

This kind of music can’t be played by just anyone.. for me this is a realised record for what I set out to do….

Robben Ford plays UK dates in April

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