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.
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."
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."
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
"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."
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."
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
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:
rasp]. 'What are you doing?'
want to play with me?'
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
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!"
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.