The Robben Ford Group – Robben Ford – guitar, Russel Ferrante – keyboards, Jimmy Haslip – bass, and Ricky Lawson – drums – were a tight, highly musical band of studio musicians that played that strange hybrid of jazz, pop, rock, and blues that was being called “fusion” in the late seventies. Playing mostly instrumentals, the RFG recorded the album, The Inside Story in 1979 – which was promoted as Ford’s solo debut.
While a Ford fan’s favorite, Inside Story didn’t sell – despite some excellent playing by everyone. The songs weren’t there, and the Steve Cropper production didn’t sound quite right. The record company decided trying a more vocally oriented approach for Ford’s follow-up, and his supporting band, now calling themselves the Yellowjackets – got their own record contract playing mostly Ferrante compositions (with Ford on guitar).
That’s how we arrive at one of the first all digital CD’s, the Yellowjackets’ debut, released in 1981 (a bonus edition with four unreleased tracks came out in 2004). What a record!
Four things immediately become apparent once the laser hits the disc (compared to Inside Story):
• Better Songs
• Better Arrangements
• Better Sound
• Better Robben Ford
Ferrante is a great composer of jazz instrumentals. No disrespect to Ford, who writes terrific, sometimes classic blues tunes, but Ferrante is in another class. Ford’s best instrumental, Revelation, was written by Ferrante. I think Ford himself would agree with this assessment of Ferrante being the more tuneful songwriter.
Ferrante’s melodies are rich and sophisticated and set against a variety of sometimes complex tempos that bring in elements of swing, jazz, lounge, and even gospel. His compositions are perfectly suited for the musicians in his band. He also does a great job of not making the synthesizer be the bad word it became in retrospect. Many records from that era are un-listenable today as the result of the DX7 sounds which became a bad cliche.
Ferrante gets some songwriting help from band mates Lawson, Haslip and Ford who either contribute or collaborate to some of the CD’s seven songs. The song collection here on the debut is excellent.
The basic song arrangements have a depth and flow that suggests they were worked out on the road over many nights showcasing a tightness and interplay you just don’t hear when songs are created in the studio. Jerry Hey horn arrangements only enhance the proceedings. Jerry even takes a rare solo on The Hornet.
The digital sound is impressive. Great separation and depth. You can hear everything, crystal clear. All the subtleties in Jimmy Haslip’s bass playing (and there is much) can be heard throughout the record. Priscilla, a portrait-of-tracy-style harmonic tour-de-force, really shows what a great bass player can bring to band.
You also have to credit Grammy winning producer Tommy LiPuma, associated with so many great recordings, here for what happened on the Yellowjackets debut.
The star here however is Robben Ford. Armed with a better tone and better material than on Inside Story, Ford takes the listener on a journey of one dizzying solo after another. He plays with ferocity, melody, and feeling that never overwhelm the material.
For many who love that type of Steely Dan – Larry Carlton complexity, this, Casino Lights, and Mirage a Trois would be the last hurrah for Ford for many years in that style. Recently, Ford has played more in that style with Jing Chi, and Neil Larsen – although he is still very much into the blues.
The Yellowjackets bonus edition features four demos, all with Ford solos. While not as great as the seven original cuts – Ford (and Yellowjackets fans) would find that edition indispensable.