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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1272

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Robben Ford: Blue Moon
by George Graham

(Concord 2112 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/6/2002)

The blues and jazz have always been related, but since the blues went electric in Chicago in the 1940s, and eventually led to rock & roll, the variety of the blues played by jazz musicians has generally gone in a different direction, staying mostly with acoustic instruments, more prominently featuring, for example, the saxophone than the guitar. The jazz-rock fusion scene in the 1970s became even further separated from the blues of the day, and for the most part, mainstream jazz and mainstream electric blues have become parallel musical streams that rarely intersect. But one musician who has had a dual career in both the blues and jazz-rock fusion is Robben Ford, whose new release is called Blue Moon.

Robben Ford came from a musical family, first taking up the sax at age ten, then teaching himself guitar at age 13. His musical career started with a membership in Chicago blues harmonica man Charlie Musselwhite's band at age 18, then forming a group with his two brothers, the Charles Ford Band, named after their father. By the early 1970s, Ford took up the guitar position accompanying blues great Jimmy Witherspoon, and a live album of music from that group was released a few years ago. By the middle part of the decade, he was invited to join the L.A. Express, the group that served as the backing band for Joni Mitchell. Ford replaced Larry Carlton, and recorded with Ms. Mitchell on two mid-1970s albums, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the live Miles of Aisles.

Not long afterward, Ford met the late George Harrison, and became part of Harrison's Dark Horse tour and album, along with Ravi Shankar, among others. Ford's first solo album marked essentially the beginning of the popular and widely respected fusion band Yellowjackets, with keyboard man Russell Ferrante. Then Ford was invited to tour with Miles Davis, and spent six months on the road with the legendary jazz innovator.

Though Ford had become known as a hot jazz-rock fusion player, he was always drawn to the blues, and Ford left Miles Davis to work on his own album Talk to Your Daughter, in 1988, which put him squarely back in the blues mode, but with his jazzy musical sophistication not far beneath the surface. That album was nominated for a Grammy.

Since then, Ford has been releasing a somewhat infrequent series of recordings that combine his jazzy musical chops with his love for the blues, with most of his recordings being vocal, highlighing his appealing airy tenor. It has been close to three years since his last release Supernatural. His new recording Blue Moon puts him in a rather familiar context, bluesy material with influences running from rock to Memphis soul, with the musical class and polish of a veteran Los Angeles studio musician, and the unmistakable influence of the jazz-rock fusion scene.

He is joined by some old friends on Blue Moon, including bassists Roscoe Beck and Jimmy Earl, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Tom Brechtlein, plus veteran keyboard men Neil Larsen -- who was also part of the L.A. Express -- and Yellowjackets co-founder Russell Ferrante. This time, Ford also contributes significantly to his CD on keyboards, including some acoustic piano. While most of the music is original material, Ford borrows two songs from the Chicago blues scene, by Willie Dixon and Little Walter Jacobs. The album features an interesting mix of styles and influences, sometimes within the same song. And this time, Ford goes a little further afield with a pair of tracks featuring acoustic piano that have a vaguely cabaret-influenced sound. As usual, Ford's guitar work is first-rate, and his guitar sound tends to have a lot more studio sheen than that of most blues guitarists. There is also a nod to his jazz experience in the fairly complex musical twists his compositions take.

Leading off is one of the old Chicago blues tunes, Up the Line, by Walter Jacobs. Ford and friends give the song his trademark combination of blues energy with jazzy sophistication. Adding an interesting touch to the performance is the gutsy baritone saxophone of David Woodford. <<>>

The first of the original tunes is called Hard to Please, which also reflects the dichotomy of this CD as it goes back and forth between a classic blues shuffle and something more like a Memphis soul song. <<>>

Make Me Your Only One is one of the most interesting tracks, with Ford playing acoustic piano as well as his guitar. His style on the piano gives the song a different and rather unexpected musical texture. Written mainly in a minor key, it's of those songs that for me, hints at cabaret influence. <<>> Joining for the last part of the vocals is Julie Christiansen. <<>>

One rather un-blues-like facet of the CD is the use of a drum machine on a couple of tunes. Don't Deny Your Love is a Ford original with kind of classic Memphis soul quality, which otherwise features some fine playing, especially by Ford. <<>> Interestingly Ford offers an alternate mix of the song at the end that replaces the automated rhythm with Vinnie Colaiuta's drums for much better results. <<>>

There is one instrumental on Blue Moon, called Indianola, which gives Ford and band a chance to cut loose. It's a strong rocker that is another of the CD's highlights. <<>>

More in the realm of a pop ballad is My Everything, also a Ford original. It provides an especially good vehicle for Ford's high but soulful vocals. <<>>

Perhaps the most unusual track is Good to Love, which has a vaguely unsettling quality reminiscent of Tom Waits' work. Ford is heard on acoustic slide guitar, which when combined with the odd orchestral samples, makes for quite fascinating listening, especially for a blues album. <<>>

Of the CD's rockers, a particular standout is the Ford original Something for the Pain. The song combines a great rock beat with very classy playing all around. <<>>

The other song from the original Chicago blues scene is the Willie Dixon composition It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace). What was originally a driving blues song is given a laid back, vaguely jazzy treatment. The lyrics are also intriguing, quite allegorical for a blues song, and with what could originally have been an anti-war message. <<>>

Blues and jazz-rock fusion guitarist and vocalist Robben Ford has created another first-rate recording that combines his two musical facets in a fairly seamless manner. His guitar work is outstanding, and though endowed with a voice rather unlike that of a typical blues singer, his vocals are quite appealing and soulful in his own way. This album, in some ways, is a throwback to the days when top Los Angeles studios musicians would get together to make a fusion-influenced recording. But such efforts have become increasingly rare, as fad-oriented music has come to dominate the commercial pop scene. The quality of the musicianship alone makes this CD very worthwhile, but the material is also strong, and for rock guitar fans, Ford provides plenty of playing to be studied for his combination of easy virtuosity and succinctness.

Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." The sound is on the loud side but relatively clean. The mix is fully up to the standards one would expect from such long-time studio veterans. Engineer Walter New is given co-producer's credits with Ford on the CD.

Whether you are a fan of Ford's music in the past, from his fusion to the blues, or whether you are a rock guitar aficionado, or even if you just like the blues outside the mainstream, Robben Ford's Blue Moon makes for rewarding listening.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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