Robben Ford - Blues Update

Sophistication. The term describes Robben Ford's music on a number of levels. The eclectic musician he regularly touches on blues, jazz, R&B, rock blends instrumental and lyrical ideas into a package so elegant, yet musically invigorating, it's hard to say whether it's more soulfully sweet or rippin jazz-bluesy. Either way, Ford's compositions often take standard blues riffs or rhythm & blues progressions, then twist them into a contemporary, Earthy affair that leaves guitarists in awe. His use of seemingly familiar, yet dazzling solo lines and his knack for seamlessly working jazzy chord substitutions and inversions into even the most traditional grooves is uncanny. 

Ford's disc, Blue Moon, his first for new label Concord Jazz, successfully continues his main mission: to update and expand the boundaries of his first love, the blues. The disc stands up admirably to Robben's classic work with his Blue Line trio on recordings such as Robben Ford & the Blue Line, Handful of Blues, or Mystic Mile.

Ardent guitar-playing Robben Ford fans have probably already worn out their copies of his excellent instructional videos and book/CD packages, Playin' the Blues, The Blues and Beyond, and Back to the Blues (parts 1 and 2). Robben lays it all out there: his favorite scales, modes, phrases, soloing techniques, comping ideas, chord inversions and more. If you haven't already, you must pick up at least one or two of these essential instructional aids. recently spent time with Robben to dig into his guitar-playing and songwriting psyche. Read on to see what he has to say about contemporizing classic styles, writing without distraction, and making it up in the studio. Hello Robben. How are things in Ojai, California?

Robben Ford: Actually there's a fire burning on the other side of the mountain, so it's kind of a drag for the whole area. There's no danger to us, but there's a yellow cloud hanging over the whole area and ash falling all over everything. It's pretty bad. It's unfortunate, but at least nobody's getting hurt. Is the fire moving the other direction?

Ford: That I don't know. It's been going for three days so it's hard to tell. The new album, Blue Moon, is really good, there's some great stuff on here.

Ford: Thank you. I notice that you recorded in a variety of studios. Were any of these tracks recorded even partially at home?

Ford: No. It sounds like you might have brought some new equipment into the house and really experimented with different moods and attitudes, even more so than on a lot of your previous releases.

Ford: There are two songs on the record that were cut in a Pro Tools studio, a professional studio. I don't have a home studio. I have a music room that I work in, but I don't really record at home. It seems to me like a distraction from writing music.

But those two songs were cut to a drum loop, there wasn't a band playing in a room. And then overdubs were done later. There's a studio listed on the album called Bay 7 and that's where I did all my vocal overdubs and loud guitar overdubs. And then the things that were like rhythm parts that were not loud or theres one song where I actually used the Pod I used that for the riffing guitar on a song called Sometime Love. There's a real fuzzy guitar that just plays riffs. That's the only thing that I used the Pod for. The tracks that you used Pro Tools on were Don't Deny Your Love and Good to Love?

Ford: Don't Deny Your Love and Sometime Love. Good to Love was cut at Sunset Sound with just bass, drums, and guitar. Jimmy Earl, who is credited with production on that song, he did all the programming and put that on later. He took the tracks home and did the programming at home. That's got a really cool feel to it.

Ford: Yeah, I really have to give Jimmy credit for that. He did a great job with coming up with something unusual. It sounds like a movie soundtrack. Is that what you were aiming for?

Ford: That's what he was aiming for, I guess. I was really surprised when I heard it, because I would not personally have gone that direction with it. But, that's why I gave it to him and said, "Do whatever you want." And it's just great. I was very pleased. When you say that you have a music room at home, but that you find recording distracting from songwriting, how do you go about capturing the songwriting that you're working on?

Ford: I sit with a guitar and paper and pen. Or I sit at the piano and do the same there. And you write everything out in sheet music?

Ford: No, the paper and pen is for lyrics. Then do you have at least a cassette recorder that you're playing into?

Ford: Sometimes I'll put ideas down on a little DAT machine, with just one stereo mic, just in case I need to remember it. It's only to help me remember the idea and not let it slide. I used to write things on paper I used to write charts. I'll still sketch things on paper a bass line, or some real basic things on paper. But I've just found that, particularly when going into the studio, if you just show the song to the guys rather than give them paper to read, they learn it much faster and they play it much more spontaneously the real way. If you're looking at paper while you're recording, it's just a little restrictive. You wind up doing things that maybe are correct, but are relatively uninspired. When you start working on a song, when you're writing something, do you carry ideas through right from the first spark of an idea to a finished song?

Ford: You mean without going on to something else? No. I'll work on something until I feel bogged down, and then move on to something else and work on that. Not necessarily back to back. I like a lot of space when I write. I really give myself a lot of room. I might work on something for 40 minutes, then I'll go make myself a cup of coffee, maybe take a walk. And the idea will kind of go through my head, and I'll come back, sit down, and concentrate on it again. Or I'll write in different rooms in the house, or go somewhere and write. So I really try to give myself a lot of room. To just hammer it out is not my style. And to just hammer it out on one thing until its done is not my style. I find that when I'm coming up with ideas, and if I pick one and start to work on it, sometimes I start to twist the original rhythmic idea that I had and sometimes in a way that I don't like. And if I haven't recorded it right from the start, I may lose the cool original idea I had. You must have a better memory than me if you can just remember all your good ideas without recording them (laughs).

Ford: Things stick pretty well with me. A lot of my best ideas come to me when I'm driving. And, generally, even if I forget the idea, all I have to do is remember the space that I was in, think about it, and eventually the idea will turn back up. I never worry too much about forgetting any ideas that come up. So you probably have a real simple set up in your music room. What are some of the basic tools you have?

Ford: I've got a [Fender] Deluxe, and I've got some nice guitars, and just a stereo system for listening and occasionally recording something to ADAT. I used to actually record all my ideas to ADAT, just so that I could hear them back, more than anything else. But I really just moved away from it. I like to just get the idea going in a very organic way me with the instrument. Certainly I always put lyric ideas on paper. I like to take them to the group and play them and see what they have to offer. You recorded with different people on different tracks, and you had Roscoe Beck and Tom Brechtlein (Editors Note: former bandmates in Robbens' Blue line trio) on a few tracks.

Ford: I had some things on which I wanted to have the best blues rhythm section that I could get. I wanted to cut some songs as close to the traditional way as possible. In other words, play with people who really know how to play the blues. And Roscoe and Tom are just absolutely the best, at being versatile, and yet at the same time able to play things in a real authentic way. I don't know anyone else who can do that. There probably are a couple, but they don't live near me. Tom can just give you what you need to play the blues in an authentic way. And Roscoe, just absolutely hands down, again, for a combination of authenticity and versatility. They just don't play it simple and right, they can play it simple and add interesting, complicated things that don't take away from the real flavor. How did you come up with all of the other guests that you had on the record? You had Frank Zappa alumni Vinnie Colaiuta behind the kit on quite a few tracks.

Ford: Yeah, Vinnie and Jimmy Earl the bassist did my last album (Editor's Note: Supernatural, 1999, Blue Thumb Records), the whole thing. He plays with my group, generally, when I go on the road. He's always kind of my first choice for a bassist. He's just a great musician and a great guy to play with.

And Vinnie, in the studio he's just so reliable. You just know that you're going to get something you're going to like with him. And it's a matter of if you want that, the way he feels. His feel to me is very particular, very precise. And then he always comes up with a nice idea. He'll play something that really fits the song that you're recording. And not a lot of guys can do that. Most people aren't as broad as Vinnie is, in terms of being able to record and give you something thats special. Simple, but special. So when you're out on the road this year, who goes with you?

Ford: There will be a little bit of a revolving door. I'm not happy about that, but all the guys that I work with, they all work with other people too, cause they're in demand. It will change, but Tom Brechtlein will be there most of the time. He's the one guy I can kind of count on here. And Roscoe Beck is going to do some dates with me. Bill Boublitz, a keyboard player that we worked with in the Blue Line for many years is going to come out and play. And Jimmy will play a little bit. And a bassist named Tim Scott from Jack Mack & the Heart Attack. He's a real good blues and R&B player. How did you pull together all the horn players and vocalists and keyboard players you had on the record?

Ford: Well, the horns, Lee Thornburg and David Woodford, played on my last record as well. Lee is somebody I really connected with a few years ago and I really enjoy him on all levels. So I always call him. Same thing with Dave Woodford. They're guys that I just enjoy working with. They did my last record, and when I had some horn parts I called them again. And Russell Ferrante plays piano on, I think, only one song I think on a couple, It Dont Make Sense, and--

Ford: Oh yeah, and on My Everything. He's just the best at sitting in and giving you something harmonically interesting. His harmony is expansive and yet it doesn't take away from the soul of the music. And Neil Larsen I reconnected with after playing with him a little bit in the 80s on a tour we did in South America. We had a great time, so I invited Neil to come in and play B-3.

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