Robben Ford: From the Soul

Matthew Warnock By

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Few guitarists on the scene today can boast a longer, more diverse and accomplished career than that of perennial blues-jazz great Robben Ford. Having toured and recorded as a sideman with such legendary performers as Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, Bonnie Raitt and Miles Davis, Ford has also made a name for himself as a bandleader, instrumental composer and songwriter. With the release of his 2009 album Soul on Ten, his fourth for the Concord label, the five-time Grammy nominee is showing no sign of slowing down as he continues to light up stages across the globe with his unique brand of blues- and jazz-influenced guitar artistry.

Robben Ford

Recorded live over two nights at the Independent in San Francisco, alongside two studio tracks, Soul on Ten is a collection of classic covers, new versions of some of Ford's older tunes and new songs from Ford's ever expanding catalogue of original material. Featuring some of the finest musicians in the business, including organist Neal Evans of the funk band Soulive, bassist Travis Carlton (son of famed guitarist Larry Carlton) and drummer extraordinaire Toss Panos, Ford has brought together an ensemble that reflects his own diversity, allowing him to take his music into new and interesting realms of expression.

Ford's playing on Soul on Ten is indicative of the highly melodic, blues-based jazz-fusion sound that has made him a guitar hero to several generations of players. Never one to rely too much on his chops, as impressive as they can be, Ford is a player of distinguished melodic tastes. He prefers to develop an emotional connection with the audience through his lyrics and solos, rather than making an effort to impress with his playing alone. His ability to dig deep into his soul and put every word and note into an emotional context makes his lightening-fast runs that much more impressive when he does choose to bring forth the more virtuosic side of his playing. This elevates his music to a level that can only be reached by decades of dedication, performing, and connecting with his audience on both musical and emotional levels.

Soul on Ten is not only a window into Ford's career to this point; it is a foreshadowing of his future musical endeavors. Focusing on combing his guitar work with his relatively newfound love of singing and songwriting, Ford still has new trails to blaze. He gives the impression that despite the vastness and success of his musical output thus far, the best may be yet to come.

All About Jazz: Your new record Soul on Ten contains eight live tracks, as well as two studio tracks, that were recorded at the Independent in San Francisco. Had you planned on releasing those tracks before or after the concert?

Robben Ford: I had intended to record that concert and release tracks from those shows on my new album.

AAJ: Why did you decide to focus on the live aspect of your playing for your new album?

RF: I finally had a band that I felt really excited about presenting. There's such consistency with this trio that it was an opportunity to capture something that I knew that I was going to like. I felt that I was going to like it, and sure enough I did.

AAJ: Two of the tracks on the album, "Earthquake" and "Thoughtless," deal with the subject of being away from home and on the road all the time. How autobiographical are the lyrics for these two songs?

Robben FordRF: That's exactly what those songs are, definitely autobiographical in nature. "Earthquake" was actually written a couple of years ago, but it just didn't fit into anything at the time. I had written that for Truth (Concord, 2007), but it just didn't quite fit for that project. So I decided to wait and see what happened.

"Thoughtless" is something I wrote very recently. The initial idea actually came from the desire to write something in 3/4 time. It's a little unusual to hear something in 3/4 time these days, unless it's some kind of blues triplet feel. That song actually started from the point of view of the music, from the feel and groove, which is the case sometimes. I'll get a musical idea first or a lyrical idea first, it could be either. On that opening verse, the first four lines came very quickly and naturally. So I never know where these things come from, really. From there on, it became a song that I was working on. Lyrics are tough, they're really hard.

I'm proud of the lyrics on all these new songs "Thoughtless," "Earthquake" and "Don't Worry About Me." They're all very unusual and unique and there was a lot of freedom exercised in the writing of those songs. I can get heady about things, over think things sometimes and I just didn't allow myself to do that too much with these songs. I spent a lot of time on them, but it was more a matter of just letting go and then things would come.

AAJ: When you first started your musical career, you were known for being an instrumentalist, but lately you've shifted gears a bit and added singing and songwriting to your vernacular. Had you always wanted to focus on these aspects of your music, or did the singing and songwriting happen naturally as your career developed?

Robben FordRF: Well, I started writing lyrics about fifteen years ago—that's when I really started to get serious about it. It's always been important for me to play my own music, and when I was younger, and an instrumentalist, I was writing instrumental music. It came out of a desire to first, make vocal music, and second, to make original music. I kind of started from scratch with songwriting, particularly from a lyrical point of view.

I saw an interview with the author of a book called the Tipping Point, where he talks about having to spend ten thousand hours to properly master something, and in the interview he said that those hours worked out to about ten years of focused work for most people. So, you know, about ten years in, I found myself writing some pretty good songs [laughs].

I have a lot more confidence in that area now, and I'm not afraid to get together with people who are better known, more famous, songwriters than I am. I feel like I can hang now. I recently co-wrote a song with Brad Paisley for his new CD ["Oh Yeah, You're Gone," from American Saturday Night (Arista, 2009)], which was the first time that someone of his fame and notoriety covered one of my songs. I'm really happy and excited about that.

AAJ: Is this something that you want to do more of in the future, write songs for other artists to sing and perform?

RF: Yeah, I'm definitely [into] doing that. I've made some very nice relationships in Nashville and have spent some real time there over the last couple of years. It's great, I really enjoy it.

AAJ: Apart from your originals there are a number of covers on Soul on Ten, including the famous blues tune "Spoonful." Out of all the blues tunes out there of this caliber what was it about "Spoonful" that spoke to you and made you feel that you wanted to include it on your new album?

RF: The first thing was finding an arrangement of that song that I liked, that felt good and that felt natural to me. Then, I could actually present that song. That's the big challenge when presenting a tune like that, that has been done in the past, specifically by Howlin' Wolf and later by Eric Clapton with Cream. But, I've got a lot of nerve. I'll step out on a limb when the tune is right and I'm comfortable with it. I also needed a band that could pull it off because there are very, very few musicians out there who can really play the blues, especially drummers and bass players.

AAJ: Had you planned on adding this tune to your repertoire before you got the band together? Or did it come to mind once you started jamming together and you felt the overall vibe of the group?

RF: I've never really thought about recording it and I wouldn't have, except in a live context like this. That's where it made sense and that's another reason why I went ahead and did it.

Robben Ford / YellowjacketsAAJ: On two of the album's tracks, "Supernatural" and "There'll Never be Another You," you use your wah wah pedal to great effect. It seems like the wah is something that has fallen out of favor with guitarists these days, after being so popular in the '60s, '70s and even up to the end of the '80s. What is it about the wah that keeps it in your inventory of effects pedals?

RF: I've used a wah for years. In fact, I started using it before a lot of other people did. It's a very natural thing for the guitar—the Wah-Wah and guitar go together well—and it's just a very natural fit. I first started using it back when I played with Joni Mitchell, which was when I started using pedals. I wasn't naturally drawn to it because I listen to a lot of tenor saxophone players and guys like Miles Davis. I'm really a jazz fan at heart.

At that time I was playing more like a saxophonist, before I joined that band, the L.A. Express. Within that context, I started using pedals for the first time. Then I moved away from them for awhile. I've always kept the volume pedal around and there's a fuzz station in my amp so I don't need a pedal for that. I'm not sure when I came back to the wah, but it's just always felt like a natural extension of the guitar for me.

AAJ: Speaking of saxophone players, you yourself started playing music as a saxophonist. Recently, guitarist Sonny Landreth spoke about the effect that learning trumpet had on his guitar playing, especially in regards to phrasing, and he mentioned you as someone who he felt had a unique approach to phrasing because of your sax background. Can you comment on how your background with the saxophone has influenced your guitar playing?

RF: I don't think that it's necessary to have played the saxophone to have it effect someone's playing. You're going to sound like the people you listen to. That's just a fact. So if you're listening to some guitarist that you really like and admire, you'll begin to sound like them. If you're listening to John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, you're going to sound different. That alone is a big help. Just listening to those guys can help give you a unique sound and approach to phrasing on your instrument.

Robben FordAAJ: Going back to your gear a little bit, what guitars did you use to record the new album?

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