Crossing genres; Pioneering styles
"Robben Ford figured out how to play blues and jazz at the same time without alienating either side. His playing reminds me of a skateboarder on the edge of a pipe - he'll just hang on a note," says John Mayer, who collaborated with Ford on his album In the Palace of the King (2007).
This article focuses on Ford’s performances available on Youtube rather than on his 29 albums as leader and 59 collaborations with artists of the stature of Bob Dylan, (Under the Red Sky, 1990), Joni Mitchell (Miles of Aisles, 1974, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975); George Harrison, (Dark Horse, 1974); Bonnie Raitt (Luck of the Draw, 1991) and Barbra Streisand (Streisand Superman, 1977), or his tour work with Miles Davis, among many others.
Guitars Exchange wish to pay tribute to this American blues, jazz, and rock legend by taking advantage of the anniversary of his birthday, 16 December, 1951, to highlight some of his outstanding moments on guitar (for ease of reference most of his solos referred to here will be put in parentheses).
As there is inevitably more archival video material available in recent years, we begin with a brief biographical summary as an introductory guide for those who would like to further explore his rich and extensive back catalogue.
At the tender age 18, Ford worked with Charlie Musselwhite on the albums The Charles Ford Band and Discovering the Blues, and followed that up with two Jimmy Witherspoon collaborations: Live and Spoonful. Tom Scott’s LA Express formed in 1973 and Ford joined the next year to contribute to Tom Cat (1975), followed a year later by LA Express and Shadow Play. The guitarist’s departure from Scott’s band led to his first solo album, The Inside Story (1979), with a formation that later became the Yellowjackets. In 1982, Ford contributed to the KISS album Creatures of the Night, and released his second solo album Talk to Your Daughter in 1988, followed by Robben Ford and the Blue Line, Mystic Mile, Handful of Blues, Tiger Walk and Supernatural – among others - in the 1990s. A further dozen solo albums have followed in this millenium so far.
We kick off with Ford’s work with Yellowjackets. In the same year the band released their eponymous debut album, they played at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival. In a rare treasure of a video Ford shines on his guitar, along with Russell Ferrante on keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Ricky Lawson on drums. In this 14 minute clip Ford has several solos (at around 7’, 10’ and 13’) but it is the middle one that is most worth a listen. Ford went on to collaborate on Mirage a Trois (1983), Run for Your Life (1994) and Timeline (2011); but this video clip captures him in his pomp.
If you would like to hear Ford playing an instrumental solo that is almost eight minutes long you could do worse than join the almost three million viewers who have watched Freedom, from the German live music show Ohne Filter. Accompanied by Deron Johnson on keyboards, Chris Chaney on bass and Gary Novak on drums, Ford can be seen playing his Telecaster on this sublime jazz oriented track.
In 1992 Ford released Robben Ford and The Blue Line and on the accompanying 50 minute video he can be seen with bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlei. With his hair pulled back in a pony tail and sporting a designer red jacket, Ford opens with a blistering solo that is longer than his usual contributions. On this performance listen to his timing and feel at the start of the video - on The Brother -, his fast run on Step On It (at 27’ 30”), or his solo work on Tell Me I'm Your Man (particularly his 36’ solo).
In the early 2000’s Ford teamed up with former Yellowjackets' bassist Jimmy Haslip and veteran session drummer Vinnie Colaiuta in a band called Jing Chi (meaning ‘essential essence’). The trio released Jing Chi (2002); Jing Chi Live at Yoshi's (2003) and 3D (2004); and then surprised fans with Supremo many years later, in 2017. This interesting short documentary was shot at Sweetwater Studios during the recording of Supremo and was inspired by what Haslip describes as the desire to create “a modern day trio possibly doing some vocal things but more instrumental stuff; kind of chanelling British groups like Cream or Led Zeppelin.” Ford clearly loved the experience – saying he has “never felt more comfortable recording anywhere in my life” – and that shows on his guitar part in the first couple of minutes of the clip.
Ford draws on jazz, rock, and blues in this 2015 concert with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. On his track Cut You Loose (at 4’ 45”) Ford plays a solo in which he is backed by a large brass band, on a song that is difficult not to move your feet to.
At Montreux Jazz Festival on July 8th 2016 Ford joins with bassist Brian Allen and drummer Wes Little for an outstanding near two-hour set. Take a listen to, for example, Birds Nest Bound (at 6’); How Deep In The Blues (Do You Want To Go) (at around 37’ Ford mixes a blistering solo with a mellow interlude, followed by some power chords); while on Please Set A Date/You Don't Have To Go (at one hour 41 minutes) you can hear an example of him playing speed guitar.
On this 20 minute set at Visioninmusica in 2016, Ford can be seen playing his Gibson Les Paul (at 2’ 38”, for example, followed by a lovely restrained part at around 14’ 15” seconds).
At the Sixth Festival of Blues and Jazz on 17 February 2021 Ford joins with bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Shannon Forrest and guitarist Casey Wasner to showcase a further development in his style, which flirts with experimental jazz; helped by him playing what may be his ’63 Gibson SG. Unfortunately a track listing is not provided but the first is a lovely funk number in which he plays several outstanding solos (for example, at 6’, 19’ and 25’).
At the Paste Studio in Nashville Ford starts with a six minute plus version of Go, which he plays on his 1960 Telecaster - “that I’ve been playing for over 30 years now.” Joined by bassist Brian Allen, drummer Marcus Finney, two saxophonists and playing some tracks from his Pure album, Ford is asked when he chooses to play his SG, Les Paul or Tele? “I don’t necessarily know, I have certain ideas going in but […] each instrument is so full of feeling and textures,” he says. “There is a lot of experimentation involved; it’s an ongoing creative process.” You could check out Ford’s solos (at, for example, around 24’ and 27’ ; the latter of which is beautifully interspersed with sax), but really the whole video is a warm and accessible introduction to Ford’s most recent work.