Robben Ford is a premier electric guitarist who over the course of a 40 year career has combined Blues with Rock and Jazz fragments sprinkled with a little R & B to form a hybrid that transcends the boundaries of these genres. He is also a skilled vocalist and innovative interpreter of songs as he clearly confirms on Bringing It Back Home, his new album on the Provogue imprint of the Mascot Label Group.
Ford has assembled a cast of four top-shelf contributing musicians all having the uppermost of jazz pedigrees, but also artists who, identical to himself, are proficient in a diverse variety of musical styles. Harvey Mason on drums is a living legend. He was involved on many of the CTI record projects that first drew me towards jazz music. Mason also appeared on a couple of my favorite albums: Lee Ritenour’s Captain Fingers and Herbie Hancock’s funky groundbreaking Headhunters, both masterpieces which have stylishly stood the test of time. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was being enlisted as a charter member in the lineup of Contemporary Jazz super-group Fourplay. Moreover, he is a producer regarded by his peers with the utmost esteem.
Another artist of world-wide notoriety is Larry Goldings, renowned for his versatility and expertise on keyboards and the Hammond organs in particular. Goldings has been a valued sideman on hundreds of projects, in addition to leading numerous others. On top of this, Goldings has made guest appearances on past Robben Ford releases, most recently on the 2007 release Truth. The other two contributors, David Pilch on bass and Stephen Baxter on trombone, while not as readily familiar to me, are both incredible top-notch musicians with exceedingly impressive and highly varied credits and touring credentials.
On his 2015 album titled Bringing It Back Home, Robben selects nine classic songs to cover in his distinctive style, graces them with new arrangements, and provides a new composition of his own that fits in like a dream. The songs are generally Blues or R&B based, and each is tackled with a relaxed comfortable charm and masterful musicianship, making this release an easily enjoyable pleasure. For the greater part forgoing the sizzling guitar solos that helped him earn his revered place among guitar heroes, he instead plays with an elegant and refined sophistication that suits itself quite well to the material he has chosen and to the ensemble of musicians joining him on this project.
Robbin covers two songs by the famous New Orleans composer and musician Allen Toussaint. The first is the album opener “Everything I Do Is Gonna Be Funky,” and Ford does the title proud with his wickedly funky vocal and guitar break near the song’s end. The song was presented in a more hurried fashion by ex-J.Geils Band front-man Peter Wolf on his last recording. Wolf is well-known for his impertinent sassy singing style, and Robin’s vocal has that same playfully mischievous quality here, although the song better blossoms in Ford’s more casual interpretation. A bit of trombone by Stephen Baxter adds a pinch of Cajun spice and the tight rhythm section, as it is throughout, is professionally conspicuous.
The second Toussaint song, “Fair Child,” is deep and dirty mid-tempo funk. Once again, Ford’s vocal shout-out to the tune’s “main squeeze” is fine-honed, and his guitar play is powerfully resplendent. Ford’s guitar and Baxter’s trombone engage in an all-too-brief lyrical conversation that lifts the song higher, as does Ford’s exceptional arranging expertise.
The early 1930’s Delta Blues song “Birds Nest Bound,” written by Big Joe Williams and often credited to Charlie Patton, offers Ford a generous opportunity to hit his Blues sweet spot and excel both vocally and on his guitar. Ford’s pure tone is so perfect and appealingly executed. He makes it sound so easily obtained; even when you know that it isn’t. This laid-back blues shuffle gets the entire group involved with an authoritative Goldings’ B-3 tremolo caringly complementing Ford’s guitar.
The lone Ford original composition is titled “Oh, Virginia,” and it contains a blue-eyed soulful vocal that refreshes like a leisurely light summer breeze through the Magnolia trees. A soft and easy pretty ballad, this song features the emphasis on the vocals in the midst of the organ gently carrying the mellow smooth melody smoothly forward.
“Slick Caper Blues” is a standard 12-bar blues with a particularly sugary guitar by Ford seasoned by graceful nuances. The arrangement utilizes the trombone as a second lead instrument, and the bass and drums muscularly keep the groove stepping. Robben’s vocals, as is typical, hit the mark squarely.
The album’s lone instrumental is the traditional gospel hymn “On That Morning.” The adaptation of this beautiful song has Harvey Mason fetching his drum brushes for a whisper/swish percussive texture. Larry Goldings’ Hammond B-3 organ sublimely trades lingering leads with Robben Ford, who showcases his sumptuous best breezily-chilled Wes Montgomery jazzy guitar style. The stand-up bass line of David Pilch is also prominent in the mix. Like all great instrumental songs, this one transcends language and speaks volumes with its touching melody.
Robben Ford’s vocals have significantly improved over the years owing greatly to his added confidence, and on Ann Kerry Ford (Robben’s wife) and Michael McDonald’s “Traveler’s Waltz” his wistful soul croon is both poised and dignified. “Traveler’s Waltz” serves as a fine companion piece to the earlier placed “Oh, Virginia;” both songs being beautiful examples of love songs presented with affectionate care and having a timeless feel.
Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” is a nice contrast with a mid-tempo carnival ambiance aided by the calliope-sounding keyboards of Goldings (reminiscent of Garth Hudson on the Band’s “Life Is A Carnival”) and trombone punctuations by Baxter. Ford’s brilliantly well-enunciated vocals augment the overall festive rolling and tumbling performance as he merrily caresses each and every syllable. He withholds his guitar soloing until the song is near its conclusion to add a cherry topping onto the proceedings.
The cover of Earl King’s “Trick Bag,” a song that has been labeled as the essential New Orleans story song, is one of the disc’s numerous highlights. Previous interpretations by The Meters and Robert Palmer are eclipsed by Robben and his skilled group. Robben alternates between short staccato rhythm blasts and some sharp-cutting bluesy succulent guitar licks while dressing the medium-tempo groove song with a daring straightforward vocal.
A slow blues treasure “Fool’s Paradise” proves the perfect finale to warmly pull down the shades and close the curtain on Bringing It Back Home. Golding’s B-3 organ again lays the melodic underpinning that includes an unblemished lead moment as Robben sing-speaks the lyrics. The spotlight then moves from the organ to Ford’s expressive guitar contemplative musings. The heart rendering pathos is dually conveyed by the music and the sung narrative that relates the sad consequences learned from a cloying life of drinking and gambling and staying up all the night. Comparisons to the standard “That’s Life,” the popular chestnut sung by Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, and many others is justified.
For Bringing It Back Home Robben takes a novel approach of only utilizing one guitar; his 1966 Epiphone Riviera. His astute reasoning was to keep the recording process simple and to keep the tone of the Riviera the focal point of the album. Another crucial element in the recording is the undeniable joy that these musicians transmit.
Robben Ford’s contributions throughout his musical life have been nothing short of immense and ever expanding. Bringing It Back Home, upon first listen, may leave some casual fans of his imaginative blistering extended guitar solos wanting. But, there is a unity of purpose in this record that is effusively revealed upon repeated concerted listenings. This realized harmonic consistency and the readily apparent love of the music by all involved make Bringing It Back Home a refreshingly rewarding album that stands apart and above most contemporary offerings available in today’s marketplace.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com