IF YOU BELIEVE THE OLD ADAGE THAT THERE’S no better teacher than experience, then fusionfueled blues guitar virtuoso Robben Ford has undoubtedly absorbed some seriously deep improvisational wisdom. While still a teenager in the 1960s, the native Californian (who originally played jazz saxophone) found himself backing Chicago blues harp monarch Charlie Musselwhite, and then hitting the road behind R&B legend Jimmy Witherspoon. Soon Ford was drafted into the legendary L.A. Express, spending what he refers to as two of the most formative years of his musical life backing Joni Mitchell on the road and in the studio, before joining George Harrison on his Dark Horse tour. An offer by Elektra records led to Ford’s involvement with jazz-fusion quintet the Yellowjackets, followed by a gig with Miles Davis.
After leaving Davis’ band with an open invitation to return any time, Ford’s solo career found its focus when he brought his refined jazz schooling in line with his blues roots. His 1988 solo outing Talk to Your Daughter was the breakthrough, receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Recording, allowing him to tour the world under his own name, and establishing him as one of the precious few guitarists whose combination of sophisticated harmonic invention and unbridled soul spoke equally to jazzbos, blues purists, and rockers.
In the ’90s, Ford spent eight fruitful years leading the Blue Line with drummer Tom Brechtlein and bassist Roscoe Beck. After several more solo albums in various group contexts, Ford has returned with a new trio on his latest release, the live-in-concert recording Soul on Ten [Concord]. As with classic rhythm section/leader relationships such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience or John Coltrane’s early-’60s quartet, muscular bassist Travis Carlton (son of jazz guitarist Larry Carlton) and musicology minded drummer Toss Panos don’t merely offer support—they ratchet up the synergy factor to maximum and push the improvisation on songs such as “Supernatural” and “Nothin’ to Nobody” to unexpected and exotic heights.
You seem to keep your rig fairly consistent. Did you roll out anything new for the recording of Soul on Ten?
Not really. I’m still using my Dumble Overdrive Special amps. For effects, I have a bottom-of-the-line Vox wah and a TC Electronic 2290 delay. Since the Dumbles don’t have reverb, I run a direct line with a dry signal out of the 2290 and into the second channel of a Fender Super Reverb to fill out the sound a little bit. Also, if I’m in a situation where I have to plug into an amp other than the Dumble, I’ll use a Hermida Audio Technology Zendrive boost. For guitars, I’m still using my ’60 Fender Tele for about half the night, my Sakashta Noupaul, and a ’57 Gibson Les Paul that’s on long-term loan from Larry Carlton.
Are your guitars essentially stock?
Yes. The rhythm pickup on the Tele died, so I had it rewound by Lindy Fralin. On the Sakashta, I use J. M. Rolph 1959-style Robben Ford Model PAF pickups with coil splitters. I actually rely on single-coils quite a bit because they have a more controllable sound for rhythm. If we bring the volume and dynamics down when I’m soloing, it’s a good bet I’m in single-coil mode. “Earthquake” is played on the Sakashta almost entirely in the single-coil position.
How did you mic your guitar?
Whenever I record, whether in the studio or live, I use a Royer R-121 ribbon mic. My sound is very midrangy. Most of the clarity is in the middle, kind of like a singing voice. The Royer is very true when reproducing that sound without adding or subtracting anything from it. It’s up to the engineers to capture my sound, not to create it.
Although organist Neal Evans appears on some cuts, your primary musical setting is a trio. What is it you prefer about the trio format?
I’d worked in a trio setting in the past with my group the Blue Line, went to a quartet for a while, and then very recently came back to a trio. It’s the best setting for me musically right now, as I’m really into play- ing and I have a lot to say on my guitar. If there’s a keyboard player—and I don’t mean to disrespect keyboard players—it’s really going to get in the way because they’re going to want to have their say, too. I also think it’s important to leave some spaces unfilled in your music because the listener—whether they understand it on an artistic or intuitive level—needs that. Space allows them to have their own experience with the music instead of having it shoved down their throats. That said, how many people you have in your band isn’t as important as having the right people in your band.
So what is it about Travis and Toss that make them the right guys?
Travis is very young—only 26—but he’s schooled and plays with real sophistication. When he solos over changes, he plays harmonically adventurous lines without sounding stiff or falling out of the pocket. Toss is a creative improviser who can explore a lot of ideas without messing up the groove. I do believe it’s possible to play a lot without overplaying. It’s when a musician becomes too self-centered that it becomes problematic. You need to be aware of how what you’re doing is affecting everyone else, and that’s something that young musicians sometimes forget. Playing in a band is a shared experience. It’s about what everyone is doing together.
The song “There Will Never Be Another You” is in 7/4 yet still grooves pretty ferociously.
That was originally written in six but I thought there needed to be a little more space in the lyric. It seemed like the verses were falling on top of each other. At first I was afraid that doing a song in seven might be too strange for some listeners, but it just felt better in seven. When we get to the improvisation, however, it goes back into six because I want that steady backbeat. I’m not sure if people listening will know about changing meters, but I think they’ll know if the feel is right, which is what matters. It’s also a big factor that Toss comes out of the Greek musical tradition and really knows how to make odd time signatures swing.
How do you manage to incorporate sophisticated jazz harmonies into your melodic lines without it sounding too odd or too much like an exercise?
It’s really important to think of every note that you play as part of a melody. I hesitate to use the word think—maybe “feel” or “intend” would be a better choice. Whatever you play should be a song. Even if the notes are going by very fast they still should say something. Retaining the freedom to play melodically is the main reason I’ve remained primarily a “blues” player. The big picture is about making music at all times. It isn’t about licks, or about modes—it’s about melodies. It’s a cliché but it’s true: your instrument is your voice.