All lovers of blues-based guitar would know Robben Ford in a just world. Sadly they don’t. Allow me to introduce him to some of you while reviewing and updating the rest.
Robben is one of the dozen absolute finest guitarists playing today. On paper, he has had a remarkable career from Jimmy Witherspoon’s blues, Joni Mitchell’s pop, the Yellowjackets’ jazz, and touring sideman with George Harrison and Miles Davis. He also has a lengthy and varied solo career with over a dozen CD releases to his name (and his former band, The Blue Line).
He is also a good songwriter – having penned a few modern-day blues classics such as Start it Up and Tired of Talking.
Peel it all away; at his core, Robben is an improviser. A “cat” who jams with other “cats.” Another in that long line of blues and jazz players who bring their talents together with other musicians to interact and see what happens that night, that recording, at that moment. Try to make some music magic.
This type of improvisational music is not for everyone. It requires active listening. Today’s famous fans want to hear music in the background. They talk about liking the “beat” – now made by a machine. They don’t wish for music by people (musicians); they want pop delivered by stars. No, bother; there are plenty of acts that meet this criterion. That is not what Robben aspires to.
Blues and Jazz songs, with their loose structures, allow for interplay between players and the chance to go somewhere new each time a song is played. That is the drug – having something spontaneous, musical, and unexpected occur in the moment – which is hard to shake once tasted for musicians. It kept Miles on the road till he died. It has BB on the street in his eighties when he can barely walk.
, I believe this drives Robben and most other real musicians to follow their muse. They keep pushing themselves to try new things. New styles, new collaborators, new configurations of musicians – all to create something new.
Robben is in line with Sting, Prince, Neil Young, and Miles. They all can’t sit still, and following their muse often frustrates fans who want more of the same. While we may hate Sting and his freaking Lute music, we must admire his commitment and not come up with another variation of Walking on the Moon. Maybe his next tangent will be more entertaining. Miles could never make Kind of Blue part 2 despite the cry from fans to do so. In the end, he played Cindy Lauper’s Time after Time every night (of all things). You get the idea artists are frustrated while pursuing their art. They have the right; they are artists.
Robben Ford is an artist. Sadly, he never connected in the way some other blues-based guitarists have. Maybe it’s his singing – he doesn’t have the blues growl of BB or SRV. Nor does he have the pop context of John Mayer. He does have the chops! Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd don’t have a thing over Robben Ford when it comes to playing the blues.
The last ten years have been great for Robben Ford fans, as he has done some of the best work of his career. Here are some to consider.
Jing Chi, his collaboration with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Jimmy Haslip has produced three exciting recordings of improvisational music. Not for everyone, but a supremely high level of musicianship with many solos from Robben. Check out Cold Irons Bound and Hidden Treasure for a flavor of what’s there.
Orbit, a record by keyboardist Neil Larsen is a terrific return to the jazz-rock styling of his early Yellowjackets period. Some great new Laren compositions where Robben gets a chance to show off his always great and under-appreciated rhythm playing along with great solos. Check out Orbit and Midnight Pass.
Solo work. There is a lot to choose from here. I think Indianola and Cannonball Shuffle are two of his best instrumental compositions. While It doesn’t make sense, You can’t make peace is one of his best arrangements (here is the Willie Dixon blues song). If you want to go back further, Handful of Blues, Robben Ford, and the Blue Line are the best of the lot – but all are worth listening to.
Other projects. Here again, a lot to choose from. Larry Carlton, with special guest Robben Ford, is a favorite. Two masters trading licks.
Robben is following his muse again for a CD and tour with guitarist Michael Landau, bassist Jimmy Haslip, and drummer Gary Novak. Solid musicians should be able to create some musical moments of magic for those lucky enough to catch them on tour.
Tour info here.