Robben Ford’s most focused, unembellished album in like, forever, may have also been the easiest album the virtuosic blues/jazz/rock/you-name-it guitarist has made in a long spell, too. In talking about his latest, upcoming album Bringing It Back Home, Ford says, “The results are really pure, and the most fun I’ve had making an album in years.” In “bringing it back home” with a collection of older folk, blues and RnB tunes, some of which he didn’t even know about prior to the recording sessions, Ford managed to add another wrinkle in his highly developed craft. As he revealed to SER’s Nick DeRiso last week, “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.”
He said all the right things about his record, but he also backs it up on that record. Playing only a ’63 Epiphone guitar kept exclusively on rhythm pickup mode, and no effects pedals or other modern day technological tricks that I was able to detect, this is the undiluted Robben Ford. One constant carried over from other records is his selection of the best personnel to back him: Headhunters and Fourplay drummer Harvey Mason was chosen to play on this record as well as organist Larry Goldings (James Taylor, Melody Gardot, John Mayer), who was carried over from Ford’s last project, Soul On Ten. David Piltch plays bass, and in a neat little twist, Steve Baxter (Macy Gray, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Stevie Wonder, The Crusaders) provides the trombone.
The first — and last — notable thing about this record is Ford’s clean, soulful and original guitar delivery. None of his eleven studio albums (including three with his Blue Line band) could ever be criticized for subpar guitar playing, but there’s a small revelation in how well his technique holds up with a setup that’s more apt to expose any weaknesses, and Ford has none. He doesn’t play blindingly fast or outwardly flashy as he could have easily done, because his licks are so tasty.
Musically, Ford is doing what a lot of great musicians were doing in the 50s and 60s: blurring the lines between blues, RnB and funk. Two vintage Allen Toussaint songs make the case: “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Fair Child” are very funky numbers both expertly anchored by Mason with Piltch on standup bass. The former is a lazy stride and the latter a cool strutting groove, and Robben shifts effortlessly between rhythm and lead parts doing his blues thing with authority on both. Baxter’s expressive trombone adds a little bit of that Big Easy flavor.
Ford strived to devise arrangements that allowed his band members to be themselves. No where is that more evident than with Goldings, who in ways both subtle and obvious, makes clear why he’s one of the most in-demand B-3 players of his generation. On the lone instrumental “On That Morning,” he follows Ford’s soft octaves with a oh-so-sweet soul-jazz solo that may have started with Jimmy Smith but he took it somewhere to a place that’s his own. He also turns in a scratchy improvising run on Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine”
Ford doesn’t just play guitar, he’s a singer and an often-underrated one at that. On the soulful RnB number “Oh, Virginia,” his only original of this collection, he shows an adeptness for nuance and investing just the right amount emotion into the words. For the Dylan cover, he’ll croon it in a way that might remind you of the song’s originator, but avoids aping the folk icon. On that song and others, the laid-back arrangements he applies to these songs — as much as those savory licks of his — put his own stamp on these durable ditties.
Which is why I don’t think of Bringing It Back Home so much as a “covers” record. Rather, it’s a essentially a back-to-basics showcase that reveals that sans slick production and arrangements, Robben Ford sounds just as enjoyably good.
Bringing It Back Home drops on February 19, by the Mascot Label Group.