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Sons of Miles
ROBBEN FORD: Play It Don't Say It
by Mike Zwerin
21 January 1999

Two multinational record companies dropped Robben Ford under more or less identical conditions. They signed him, recorded him, forgot about supporting and promoting him, and then said he doesn't sell. In the meantime he was touring with George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, David Sanborn and Miles Davis.

While considerably more than surviving, he wasn't doing the thing he does naturally the first time he picks up his guitar in the morning. What comes out? The blues. Simple. Not too much to ask for. Yet he knew that most people who do that never get signed by record companies. If they're lucky, they tour small clubs for months on end year after year and that's the end of it.

Lo and behold, Ford now has the best of both worlds, playing first-class venues around the world with his blues trio and recording his natural music for Chick Corea's label Stretch Records. A self-named album by Robben Ford & The Blue Line - with old friends Roscoe Beck, electric bass, and Tom Brechtlein on drums - has just been released. This power trio instrumentation is fraught with pejorative heavy metal implications, and in this case maybe worse - a white blues band.

Ford defines their music more basically: "We are musicians. We love music."

Critics tend to discount the statement, "We're in it for the music." Every musician says that. All too often, music is more means - money, fame, sex - than end. So when the members of The Blue Line said it to me one recent afternoon on a European promo tour, they were dismissable words. I'd heard them before.

I began to question my cynicism watching Brechtlein - who has played for extended periods with Corea, Wayne Shorter and Joe Farrell - lean out of his chair with convincing passion and say: "This band is about getting back to going out there and burning. Where we're coming from is people like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams - come out of the gate smoking. Total involvement. There's not enough of that any more. It's like, 'Come on, man, move me. Say something. SH-BAM!'"

Roscoe Beck picked up the thread seemlessly: "It's just about the music for us. If we make a little money and become more famous, it will make home life more comfortable. That's great. But it's basically a musical journey we're taking together."

Robben Ford

I have found that manipulative aggressivity sometimes shocks interviewees out of their infuriatingly predictable "on the record" mode: "But why do you guys have a blues band?" I asked, with an edge. "The blues is basically only one 12-bar tune with three chords, give or take a few. Wouldn't you like to play, say, 'Stardust,' once in a while?"

Beck pulled me up: "Your question is kind of like, 'Why do you guys have a marriage?'" He had a point.

Ford laughed: "You didn't do the dishes yesterday, Roscoe."

"I've produced and played with Leonard Cohen," Beck continued. "He says that basically everybody has only one song, that they write it over and over with extensions and inversions - but just about the same."

On the defensive, I cited Cole Porter and George Gershwin and even The Beatles as having more than one song.

"We don't have one song either," Brechtlein said. "Maybe it looks like that on paper, but when you combine and change elements and make it new each night and you're totally involved with it, it's much more than that. It's true that the blues is something you play when all else fails, it gets over. But you have to figure out how to make it fresh each time."

"I'm glad you're under the impression we're a blues band," Robben Ford continued: "That's our ground, much more than jazz. But, if anything, I view this band as being in the tradition of the way Miles Davis's groups developed. He played very traditional music for a very long time. This is a creative process. We are not going to stay in the same place. There's a lot of variety here. We're influenced by anything we hear. We want to translate those influences into different colors."

Time to change the tack. I asked Ford about playing with Davis.

"Miles was looking for a guitar player and his producer knew me from the days I was with Jimmy Witherspoon and a band called the Yellowjackets. So Miles called me up, I picked up the phone and couldn't believe it:

"[Hoarse rasp]. 'What are you doing?'


"'You want to play with me?'

"'Well, YEAH!'

"So I flew to Washington D.C. two weeks later, having learned what I could via tape and some unclear arrangements they sent me; 25 tunes, not one rehearsal. Never met anybody with the band, never met Miles. I was completely terrified. The first song was rocking and very fast, and it was like being on the wing of a jet. After my first solo, I sheepishly looked up at him, and he goes, 'Damn!' He dug it. He was always really nice to me. He'd be nasty to other people and nice to me. He wasn't a racist. He was just... well, cool."

What about a white band playing the blues?

"My own experience," Ford said, "is that there is less bigotry from blacks towards whites than vice versa. In other words, as far as black musicians are concerned if you can play you can play, whereas white guys will be saying 'They can't play because they're not black' to other white guys. Weird."

That evening Robben Ford & The Blue Line played a showcase for the press and record company people in La Villa, a swell little jazz club in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They came out of the gate smoking - obviously in it for the music. They stretch the blues into many songs. A one-man percussion section featuring fast footwork, Brechtlein made rock time as supple as can be. Beck provided a firm, elaborate, unpredictable foundation playing chords and walking at the same time on his six-string bass. Ford has presence and sings convincingly without resorting to show biz glitz. His guitar playing makes you want to say "Damn!"

Live music had not been so much fun in months. The afternoon discussion has been useless and revealing at the same time. You can say a lot more about music playing it than talking about it.

Photo: Robben Ford, with Roscoe Beck (left) and Tom Brechtlein.
Credit: Christian Rose

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