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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?

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