Do-anything guitarist Robben Ford is hailing his forthcoming album Bringing It Back Home as “my favorite thing that I’ve done in a long time,” and that’s certainly saying something.
Over his amazingly varied, and quite fascinating career, Ford has performed and recorded with blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon, George Harrison of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, the Yellowjackets, Miles Davis, even Kiss — all issuing some 18 previous similarly varied solo albums.
Bringing It Back Home, due February 19, 2013 from the Mascot Label Group, is Ford’s first studio effort since splitting with Concord some six years ago. He’s again performing alongside keyboardist Larry Goldings (who appeared on the Concord finale Truth, in 2007), but there’s little else typical about this soul-lifting set of R&B-laced, jazz-informed groovers.
Ford joined us in an exclusive SER Sitdown to talk about Bringing It All Back Home, joining Harrison and Davis on tour, performing with Mitchell at her supernova moment, and how he ended up filling in for Ace Frehley …
NICK DERISO: I expected something like Charley Patton’s “Bird’s Nest Bound,” and in a way even Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).” But there’s an interesting current of New Orleans music running through Bringing It Back Home. How did that come to be?
ROBBEN FORD: To find these other songs, I had to look outside my own circle of influence. I had a friend send me a bunch of music. He really like the New Orleans thing, and a lot of different kinds of R&B that I had never heard. I found these songs, “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” by Allen Toussaint, which was originally recorded by Lee Dorsey. “Fairchild,” originally recorded by Willie West — whom I had never heard of before. That song was also written by Allen Toussaint. And then “Trick Bag,” by Earl King.
NICK DERISO: The Meters were all over those old Toussaint records.
ROBBEN FORD: The likelihood is that members of the Meters are on at least two, if not three of these sessions. They played on everybody’s records in New Orleans, like Booker T. and MGs playing on every record that came out of Stax. They were the house band. So there is a thread there, a certain style there. It’s fantastic, but something that I was not familiar with. I hadn’t really investigated that. It was a breath of fresh air. I was able to find things in myself that hadn’t been there before, in earlier recordings and in my own songwriting. That was wonderful, and inspiring.
NICK DERISO: You backed up George Harrison on his 1974 American tour. What are you own personal memories of that time?
ROBBEN FORD: The time that I spent with George that was really quality time was off the road. On the road, we were working very hard, constantly traveling. The show was long, and often we would do two shows the same day. That was a very long day. Then we’d go to the airport, up on a private plane and on to the next city. There was no hanging out on the road. Basically people were sleeping, sound checking, eating, playing and then traveling. I did have the good fortune of staying at his house in Henley-on-Thames, a couple of times in England. That was more of a connect. I also stayed at his house in Beverly Hills — “Blue Jay Way,” right? He was always very nice to me. He even gave me a guitar. On the tour, we finished right around Christmas in New York City, and he had a little party for everyone. He gave me a picture of a guitar, and said: “This is my Christmas present to you; it’s being made by Gibson.” He had custom ordered it. It came to me later in the mail. He was such a warm person.
NICK DERISO: The tour couldn’t have been easy, with the contingency of Indian musicians that George invited along. How did you mesh with them?
ROBBEN FORD: George liked people who could play different styles of music. He said I did a good job of working with them. I was surprised by that, because I felt out of my depth, honestly, in some ways. It was very intense. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol, definitely 1970s rock and roll — and that’s not good for anybody, quite honestly. He was also just falling in love with Olivia, who later became his wife. He really spent a lot of time with her. We just didn’t tend to see him all that much. But, off the road, he was very personal. He was also very gregarious, always telling stories and laughing. There were a lot of jokes. He liked to have a good time, in a simple way like that.
NICK DERISO: You and LA Express were there as Joni Mitchell emerged as a different kind of artist on a trio of 1970 albums, shifting from folk to what is now known as her jazz period — including the legendary Court and Spark. You guys brought things out of her that I don’t think anyone had ever heard before, and she’s never sold more records. In many ways, it’s still a remarkable period.
ROBBEN FORD: I couldn’t agree with you more. I thought she and John Guerin, the drummer with the LA Express, were going to get married at some point. They were very close, and I think he influenced her quite a bit form the jazz side of things. They lived together, so he was exposing her to Betty Carter and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. I think it, indeed, opened her up musically in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. She was always a brilliant musician — and particularly when she sat down at the piano. Her music could become very expansive. With the guitar or on the dulcimer, she didn’t have a lot of technique on those instruments. But on the piano, she developed her own language. It became orchestral, like her mind. She had a big mind. So, I couldn’t agree with you more. It was an amazing period, certainly in her music — but it was incredible legacy in music in general.
NICK DERISO: Along the way, you put together the Yellowjackets as a backing band for a solo album, 1979′s The Inside Story. Do you take some measure of pride in having assembled, in one form or another, one of the longest-running contemporary jazz groups?
ROBBEN FORD: Well, Jimmy Haslip is no longer there. Russell Ferrante is the only other one left. But the original group was indeed meant to come together. That’s happened a couple of times in my life. It’s rare in my experience that you find a group of people and it’s exactly the people you want. That’s very rare. It can happen on a session, maybe, but to travel the world with them, it was wonderful thing. That’s happened maybe three times in my life — and certainly the Yellowjackets were one of them. It was just meant to be.
NICK DERISO: People might not know that you were part of Kiss’ Creatures of the Night project in 1982 — playing lead on both “Rock and Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You.” How did that strange intersection take place?
ROBBEN FORD: I had worked with the producer (Michael James Jackson) on some demos that he had produced for me, and we’d become friends. Somehow, I don’t know how, he landed the job as producer on that particular record. Ace Frehley was no longer in the band, and they were looking for a guitar player. They needed somebody to finish the record. They would bring people in to play on songs, and they were also checking them out to take Ace Frehley’s place. I just happened to be one of the guys who was brought in to play on the record. I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that I would become a part of that band.
NICK DERISO: Did you ever picture yourself in the makeup and the spaceman boots? (Laughs.)
ROBBEN FORD: Absolutely not. (More laughter.)
NICK DERISO: Something that made a lot more sense followed with your six-month stint touring with Miles Davis. That must have been somewhat surreal, though, at first.
ROBBEN FORD: He called me, just to talk. I was, like, ‘Miles is calling me, just to chat.’ I never expected to be invited to play with him. It never even occurred to me to seek out that opportunity. When it came, I was not only terrified, I was really happy. It didn’t take me long to get my sea legs. We definitely did connect, though you didn’t see a lot of Miles out on the road. He traveled separately. He would arrive, and come on stage, play and then leave. But I could tell that he really liked the way I played; he was always really complimentary. He said I could come back any time.
NICK DERISO: Ultimately, you weren’t with him long enough to record a studio album, though a live set at Montreux surfaced about 10 years ago. What led you to decide on a solo career at that point?
ROBBEN FORD: Actually, I had just signed with Warner Bros.; it was already in progress when I joined Miles. In fact, I didn’t think I was going to be able to stay as long as I did. But the record was delayed, so I stayed for three more months. Once it came out, it was time to go, so I did. I ran into him one time, when I was still living in New York. It was my birthday. He didn’t play clubs in the U.S. anymore, but on this night he was opening a new venue in Manhattan and so I took a group of friends out for my birthday to see Miles. We went backstage to say hello, and he was back there getting pictures taken with another artist. I don’t know who the artist was, a performing artist of some kind. Miles looks at me and says ‘Robben!,’ and makes me come over and get in the picture. The three of us standing there, and he says, ‘this is Robben ford.’ The guy says: ‘OK, hi.’ Miles says: ‘If you ever need a guitar player …’ It was nice. Miles could have an edge. But on that night, he was friendly. You never quite knew what you were going to get with him, never knew quite how to approach him. The best thing to do was be yourself and not take any shit from him. Then he loved you. I figured that out, and we got along great.
NICK DERISO: There’s a similar melding of blues and jazz elements on Bringing It Back Home, with a band that includes Larry Goldings (Jim Hall, David Sanborn) and Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, George Benson). How did that change the nature of these sessions?
ROBBEN FORD: Larry Goldings has played, I think, three records of mine in the past. We never toured together, but I’ve always been a fan of his. It was just brilliant to get him on this record, the whole record, and to really use him — really feature him, bring him forward. It’s a real ensemble, with Harvey Mason on drums. I had toured a couple of times with Harvey in Japan. The bass player was recommended by both Larry Goldings, and the drummer from my trio — David Piltch. That was certainly a great call. I did not know David, so I was delighted to meet a new, great musician. He’s going to be in my touring band, as well. Then on trombone is Steve Baxter –
NICK DERISO: That really adds to the New Orleans feel, too. The trombone is such an expressive horn.
ROBBEN FORD: Yeah, right? I’ve always liked it, but never before found a way to bring it into my own music. Here, it was just exactly the right instrument. Again, for me, these were all new influences. Put it all together, and this is my favorite thing that I’ve done in a long time.