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Ricky Ford: From Across the Sea

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Living in France it's a little bit different… But none of this can really be an impediment to your creativity. You could live on Mars and still make a good record.
—Ricky Ford
Ricky Ford is a badass tenor saxophonist. Many will recall his fierce and strong playing on his Muse releases in the '80s. Others may be aware that he was a stalwart member of big bands like the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the leadership of Mercer Ellington and with Charles Mingus and later the Mingus Dynasty band.

Those Muse disks, and releases on Candid Records, included monster players like Jaki Byard, John Hicks, Jimmy Cobb, Larry Coryell, Louis Hayes, Roy Hargrove and many more. Yet Ford disappeared a bit from the consciousness of U.S. jazz fans when his life's path took him to Paris in the '90s. He later took a teaching position in Istanbul, Turkey, but while he returned to play U.S. gigs, his recorded output slowed in the 2000s. Ford still resides happily in Paris.

This year, however, Ford, 68, burst out with a strong new album, The Wailing Sounds of Ricky Ford: Paul's Scene (Whaling City Sound), with superior sidemen Mark Soskin on piano, Barry Altschul on drums and bassist Jerome Harris. Some of the music has ties to tenor sax great Paul Gonsalves, the noted Ellington sideman. Ford took the tenor saxophone chair in the Ellington orchestra that was vacated by Gonsalves' death. Ford was 20 at the time.

The Wailing Sounds of Ricky Ford: Paul's Scene is his first recording in almost a decade. For those who need to be reminded of Ford's playing strength and musical imagination, a listen to this music will jog the memory. The germination of the record was the Gonsalves link, but not all music is Gonsalves-related. It starts with a bouncing "Ricky's Bossa," an original done in the Latin vein as the title suggests. Others tunes go into other musical areas. Throughout, there is a palpable sound and feel that is reminiscent of Sonny Rollins in intensity and strength. Another signature of this recording is that Ford has deliberately kept the songs short. Five are under four minutes. Only two are over five minutes. The musicians had to get in and out of their solos quickly and concentrate on pushing the music along, getting the most out of it, like musicians did before the advent of the LP.

"He still amazes me. He has more to say today than he did yesterday," says NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson, a longtime Ford follower, in the CD liner notes.

"The CD was a big challenge because there were so many songs to play," says Ford from his Paris home via Zoom. He said executive producer Neal Weiss approached him a few years back about doing a recording with Gonsalves' music in mind. "I couldn't find too many. So I wrote one dedicated to him called 'Paul's Scene.'" There are also tunes with Harry Carney, the baritone sax master who was in the iconic Ellington sax section for decades, in mind. There is a Lester Young influence as well.

"I did a lot of research about this CD, and I came up with some things that hadn't been really done before. I listened to Harry Carney and some things with Coleman Hawkins," he says. "Harry Carney and I grew up in the same neighborhood in Boston. And so his house was right around the corner from my house. My father grew up with Johnny Hodges. I took Paul's place in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1974. In my past recordings, I've done a lot of things dedicated to Paul Gonsalves. On Shorter Ideas I did "A Happy Reunion." "Chelsea Bridge" was done on Flying Colors. These are Muse recordings from the early '80s."

"It was a big challenge to find some more things to do for this CD ... I found one that (Gonsalves) did with Harry Carney, 'Mabulala,' a Kenny Graham composition that Harry commissioned for Kenny to do. And Paul was on that record date."

"This is ongoing research that I've been doing about Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. They are big influences on Paul Gonsalves. I realized I didn't have that much solo space for everybody. So I had to really make the CD very concise in a certain type of way that was actually groundbreaking for tenor saxophone. I mean, sometimes you will hit on an old Dial record with Charlie Parker and you will hear the three-minute side or two-and-a-half minute side. But there was always a bass solo, always a trumpet solo, always a piano solo. So I wanted to make the CD sort of like that, but also make it into something that was a little bit different than is normally done in jazz—featuring the soloist in a limited amount of space for a limited amount of time. It actually turned out to be a certain type of concept that hasn't really been done that much.

"Normally you see this type of concept with piano trios. You don't see too much in a quartet setting featuring a saxophonist. The saxophone is playing the melody, then he's taking a little bit of a solo and then he's taking it out and then switching to another mood. And so I had this sort of concept ... So I was really happy with it. Most of the time when I make CDs, I take longer solos. So this is a chance for my fans and for the people who love jazz to hear me in a more conventional type of format. And it really hasn't been done that much since the 1940s and 1950s. Then you had 78s and things like this."

Ford is not sure yet if some of the music will get played on his periodic trips back to the U.S. The last big U.S. project he did was in Boston, for a big band. The music is influenced by the writing of Langston Hughes. "It is called the Makanda Project (with the 16-piece Makanda Project ensemble he formed) with music by John Kordalewski, who used to work in my big band in Boston. A few years ago, I started to do research about Langston Hughes. So I wrote a lot of big band charts that could incorporate his poetry. One of the songs on the current CD is 'That Red Clay' which is dedicated to Langston Hughes."

Earlier this year, Ford was in Boston to premiere his big band arrangements for the Makanda Project with poet Askia Touré speaking the words. He recorded the music earlier in the year "so maybe at some point that could come out," he notes.

Meanwhile back in Paris, "I'm practicing every day and working on music every day. It was really strange, you know, because I was supposed to do the Langston Hughes project (in 2020) and it got canceled because of the pandemic," says Ford. He traveled to the U.S. for it, but, "I spent maybe 11 hours in New York and I came back to France very quickly because they said [COVID] was going to close down France. Then I just got into taking care of my garden and stuff like that. I didn't touch my saxophone for nine months. After things calmed down a little bit, I started to take the horn back out and practice a little bit and started to think about this album [The Wailing Sounds of Ricky Ford].

Ford's playing is as strong as ever and his talented colleagues hold up their end of the bargain. He's got more recording ideas in the works, though he isn't leaking anything out just yet. But his great sound will be heard more. Younger eyes and ears that aren't familiar with the tenor man will likely be opened—wide.

As a youngster in the Boston area, Ford started out on drums. He picked up the saxophone at 15, inspired by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Pianist Ran Blake heard him in a club and persuaded him to study music at the New England Conservatory. Ford soon joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He knew the music—which impressed his band mates—because he had already played on an album of Ellington music that Gunther Schuller recorded earlier that year at the conservatory. Ford was friends with drummer George Schuller, Gunther's son.

In 1976, Byard, a professor at the conservatory, introduced Ford to Mingus. Ford's familiarity with Ellington served him well, since Mingus was a huge Ellington admirer. The great bassist eventually hired Ford, who played in that group from 1976 to 1978. Mingus died in 1979. Ford spent the '80s and '90s freelancing in New York, touring with top bands and recording prolifically under his own name.

Says Ford, "I did a lot of CDs in Rudy Van Gelder's studio. The studio is very particular place you know. It's very demanding. He demands a lot from the musicians. Little teeny things can be very big demands. So you have all this shit in the back of your mind. Then all of your professional experience, educational experience comes in. I studied [at New England Conservatory] with Joe Allard, with Jacki Byard, you know. I worked with Milt Hinton. I worked with most of the greatest bass players on the planet. Christian McBride made some of his first recordings with me. Ray Drummond is a distant cousin of mine. Walter Booker is another. I went to school with Jerome Harris. So, I mean, all of these elements of experience stay with you. So when you get a chance to go into a recording studio and make a record, you're going to think about all of these things. And then you have to think about everything within the moment, within the situation that's going on."

Ford was influenced by many superb saxophonists over the years, but he cites a brief period with one of the masters as important to his growth.

"I worked with Sonny Rollins for a week. He had just come out of retirement, and he did a recording playing in the backyard. It was before The Cutting Edge (Milestone, 1974). And he was playing 'The Cutting Edge' material but I knew a lot of his songs. So he let me play with him for a whole week. I think that was really a turning point for me. It was one of the first times that I was playing with a working band, working professional band. Walter Davis Jr. was on piano. I was like 19 years old. So that was a big experience, to play with Sonny."

"I mean, working with Mingus and Duke Ellington's orchestra was also great experience. It's sort of like flipping a coin. Heads or tails, you know? Who knows who's heads and who knows who's tails? This is very austere situation," says Ford, "coming after Duke had passed away, playing in the band and people still mourning the loss, and then Mingus getting sick, and then the whole mourning period again when this great artist passed away. It was sort of a great time, but also a time that really took a lot of air out of the balloon, you know? You have to pick up the pieces and continue on.

"So around this point, I started recording for Muse Records and made a record with Dannie Richmond and David Friesen and Jacki Byard. Then I started a good relationship with Jimmy Cobb and Walter Booker. We started doing a lot of gigs together in New York and subsequent other dates."

Eventually, Ford moved to Paris. He would return regularly to the U.S. to teach at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, but on a trip to Istanbul, "I met some guys there. And the students wanted me to do a workshop at the school. And so I did a workshop and they really liked what I did. They said, 'Well, do you think you might want to live in Turkey and teach here?' I said, 'Yeah, why not?'" says Ford. "The commuting started from Paris to Turkey. It's really an incredible place to live and to teach. The students there are really dedicated. Atlantic Records was founded by a Turkish businessman [Ahmet Ertegun]. So they have a very big appreciation of jazz because somebody from Turkey was responsible for important music that came out of America. They really have a respect for the music ... So I did this teaching in Turkey for about seven years, from 2000 to 2007, or something."

Ford does less teaching these days. He writes and practices. He's planning more trips to the U.S.

Also, as a unique side note, Ford found a saxophone from Adolphe Sax, originator of the saxophone, that dates back to 1867. He is having it refurbished. "I will most likely include this on one of my next projects. It's a great horn. It's a second generation Adolphe saxophone. So I'm really looking forward to it," he says. "They really haven't changed that much. Maybe they've gotten heavier, they have more keys and things like that, but the fundamental genesis of the instrument hasn't really changed that much. These saxophones are very rare. I think there's maybe 300 or 400 saxophones (of that lineage) that exist on Earth today."

There's more great music to come from Ford. But glancing back, he notes, "I was really lucky to be able to record and to play with so many musicians. The time goes by so fast. Being a sideman and a freelance musician and a journeyman in New York, it was a very productive time. There weren't that many tenor saxophonists around so I had a chance to be in many different types of working situations. You work with musicians and now you regret that you didn't work with them more, you know? You just couldn't do certain things that you wanted to do at that time I was in New York. I was raising a family. I had young kids. With kids its very hard to go out on the road sometimes. So I missed some road opportunities with some great musicians. But there's nothing we can really do about that.

"Even today, living in France, it's a little bit different. It's not like you're living in America. The choice of musicians is more limited. But none of this can really be an impediment to your creativity. You could live on Mars and still make a good record."

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