THOUGH HE’S A talented singer and songwriter, Robben Ford has nevertheless become a legend primarily for his prodigious guitar prowess. In addition to the fabulous fretwork on his own records, he is known for turning in stunning, lyrical solos on recordings featuring Jimmy Witherspoon, Michael McDonald, Miles Davis, the Yellowjackets, the L.A. Express, and even Bruce Willis and Kiss.
“From a very early age, I was drawn to beautiful melodies,” he says. “Eric Clapton is a melody player, as is Hendrix. They were not playing bebop. It was about feeling, sound and texture. Those were things I was attracted to: the sound of this note against that chord, as opposed to a lot of notes.”
Given the enthusiasm for Ford’s guitar playing, it’s remarkable that almost a quarter of a century has passed since he released an all-instrumental record under his own name. There have been vocal-less side projects with former Miles Davis group saxophonist Bill Evans, and a series of trio projects with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Jimmy Haslip under the Jing Chi moniker, but Ford’s last instrumental solo record was 1997’s Tiger Walk.
In the interim, the guitarist, known as a master of tone, taste and time, has been honing his skills as a singer and songwriter on two decade’s worth of releases. These have largely followed a tried-and-true process: Gather a fantastic rhythm section of bass, drums and keyboards, go into a world-class studio, and knock out the new batch of tunes as live as possible. Occasional variations might include adding a trombonist (as on 2013’s Bringing It Back Home), bringing in former Black Crowe Audley Freed to play rhythm guitar so he could cut an entire record in 24 hours (2014’s A Day in Nashville) or even forsaking his sacred Dumble (2018’s Purple House). Still, fans could be pretty sure that, while each release might feature a new band and maybe some new gear, it would essentially be a snapshot of the latest batch of songs.
But with his new album, Pure (Ear Music), Ford breaks from the recipe in a couple of ways. For starters, the return to his instrumental roots. “Writing songs with lyrics is really hard,” he says. “My strongest voice is my guitar playing. In my early 20s, I had written a lot of instrumentals in a jazz vein for the Yellow Jackets, as well as for my first solo album. I had also made two records recently with Bill Evans. My chops were up for the instrumental thing, and I was enjoying it, so I thought I should go where the energy was and let the music tell the story.”
Telling a story with his music is one of the things that separates Ford’s playing from other guitarists and many other instrumentalists as well. This is evident on Pure in the compositions as well as the solos. “I wanted to feel something,” he says, “to be moved by a voice, to be talked to.” To that end, he speaks to the listener in a number of tongues. Fans from his days with Jimmy Witherspoon, the Charles Ford Band and Charlie Musselwhite will be thrilled by the blues mastery of “White Rock Beer…8 Cents,” and “Blues for Lonnie Johnson.” The title track translates the soul of the blues into a Middle Eastern dialect through the addition of exotic percussion and a virtuoso oud player. “Balafon” speaks in what today might be called a neo-soul vernacular, though Ford comes to the style more through O.G. practitioners like Curtis Mayfield, Cornell Dupree, et al.
In another departure from his usual modus operandi, the guitarist largely eschewed live recording for a more layered, painterly approach. Like Purple House, the new album was recorded by Ford and engineer/ co-producer Casey Wasner at Wasner’s studio (also called Purple House) in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. They began rehearsals with a rhythm section, imagining they would record the record live, in typical Ford fashion. It soon became evident that the guitarist had a new vision, one that needed to be realized exactly as he imagined it. “When you bring guys into the studio, you have to let them sound the way they play, and it influences the music,” Ford says. “I felt that this time I wanted to have it my way.”
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