NEW YORK: A Few Minutes With Robben Ford - by J. Blake

Posted on 8/25/2009 by J. Blake

Just after 8pm on Wednesday August 19, 2009, Robben Ford took the stage at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill in NYC, accompanied by drummer Toss Panos and bassist Andy Hess. That night’s show was dedicated to the late Les Paul, and the trio represented the deceased music icon admirably. The rhythm section was extremely tight and as always, Ford was in great form. Spectators were treated to an abundance of Ford’s blues rooted jazz/fusion guitar-style and soulful vocals.

The band is currently promoting Robben Ford’s first officially released live album; an energetic and “smoking”
Concord Records release titled SOUL ON TEN. Like the concert captured on the CD, Wednesday night’s set was comprised of a combination of original material from previously released studio albums, expertly crafted blues covers and more recent Ford compositions. Definite highlights from both the recent NYC performance and the new live album include an Elmore James/Jimmy Reed medley of Please Set a Date & You Don’t Have to Go, an upbeat and very exciting arrangement of Howlin Wolf’s Spoonful, a wah-wah driven rendition of Kevin Sandbloom’s Supernatural as well as Ford’s original compositions How Deep in the Blues (Do You Want to Go) and the more recent Earthquake.

Earlier that afternoon, just before his soundcheck, Mr. Ford was nice enough to sit down with me to discuss his career, his influences, his new album and much more.

J. Blake: I’d like to first, thank you for sitting down with me for a few minutes.

Robben Ford: You’re welcome.

JB: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time and I actually learned how to play blues lead guitar from one of your lesson books and tapes.

RF: Is that right?

JB: So this means a lot to me and I appreciate it.

RF: Thank you.

JB: I was hoping we could start with talking about how you started with playing the saxophone and then maybe talk about why you ended up switching to guitar.

RF: Well my first instrument was the saxophone and I started playing it at age ten and the guitar was something I just sort of fooled around with, because there was a guitar at the house. My father had been a…kinda a guitar player/vocalist early in his life, but shortly…by his twenties, he was married and having kids. So you know…but, he showed me my first chords on the guitar, because there was just a guitar there. There was a guitar at the house. I’m just a musician. I fool with piano, guitar…if there was a musical instrument I was going to fool around with it.

And so basically I started to excel at the guitar and in my first band which was at age 13, I was playing saxophone, guitar and lead vocal and I just…as I say, just started excelling at the guitar and getting more excited about it and then I heard Mike Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and that really lit me up to get way into the guitar. I came back to the saxophone a little later, because my interest in jazz grew and I liked saxophone players so you know, when I was 20 I was writing most of my own music, most of it instrumental and I was playing both guitar and saxophone in a band. And when I was finally hired to play with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express and tour with Joni Mitchell…I was 22 at that time…the guitar was obviously my calling, so I just went for it.

JB: You actually brought up two points I’d like to discuss. One was…you hear a lot of guitar players, specifically people like Santana talk about saxophone players, like John Coltrane, being a big influence of their playing and their lead work. Being someone that has played both saxophone and guitar, do you think that the saxophone players that you admire shaped your playing in a way that is maybe different then the guitar players that have not played saxophone?

RF: Well I don’t know how much it has to do with playing the saxophone, as listening to it. I don’t think it really matters…you don’t have to play it. It is just listening and learning how those people phrase. There are things that happen on the saxophone that are not necessarily natural for the guitar and certainly vice versa. But really it is just a matter of what you listen to and it is something that I always try to advise guitar players to do. Please don’t listen to only guitar players. You really need to listen to other instrumentalists and it will assist you tremendously in sounding like yourself and in developing your own sound and style…because you sound like who you listen to. That’s just the way it is man.

JB: That’s interesting. I’ve noticed that today it seems like guitar players that have their own specific “sound” seem to be falling by the wayside and when you hear blues guitarists these days, they either sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton.

RF: Everyone sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan sounded like Albert King!

JB: Yes well clearly everybody picks and chooses things from other players, but it just seems like today everybody just sounds like everybody else and it is kind of disappointing.

RF: Yeah…

JB: You also brought up the fact that you’ve played with Joni Mitchell.

RF: Brought up the fact?

JB: Yes

RF: You mean just a moment ago? Oh I see…

JB: You’ve played with a lot of great people…George Harrison, Miles Davis and you’ve played with Jimmy Whitherspoon…

RF: Yes Miles Davis and Jimmy Whitherspoon, those are names that people (blues fans) probably connect with a little bit.

JB: Yes and clearly playing with those artists…that had to be a thrill. I even read that Miles Davis called you personally on the phone.

RF: He did.

JB: Can you talk a bit about what it is like to play with artists of that caliber?

RF: Well for one thing it’s a tremendous compliment and a confidence booster and there is always something to learn and it is always, or usually anyway, something different. You know Jimmy Whitherspoon, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell of course, I mean in all three of those situations and they are actually the outstanding ones; I’ve played with a lot of other people as well, but those three people, were people that I had so much respect and admiration for and loved there music, that I loved being in a supportive role. You know, it’s like “I’m here for you…I’m one of your troops man and you put it down and I’ll pick it up…just let me know what you need and I’m there for you.” It was that kind of a feeling and so it’s a beautiful beautiful thing. Musicians…there’s a great quote that says “how do you get a musician to complain?” Do you know this joke?

JB: No

RF: Get him a gig. (we both laugh) You know you can work for any number of people and just not like it. You know you’re there for the paycheck and these situations…I would’ve played for these people for free on some level or I wouldn’t have cared what I was getting paid. To have the opportunity to be in the situation was so…special. And it is very rare. It’s rare for even musicians who spend their entire lives in music to get an opportunity with people like “that”. Those three people are very outstanding and so I thank my lucky stars for having the great pleasure of making music for those people and I learned …you know…it totally shaped me as a musician and as band leader.

JB: Sure…wow that’s great, thanks. So you have a new album?

RF: Yes


RF: That’s it.

JB: Would you like to talk about the title and what it means?

RF: “What it means.” (he laughs) No….

JB: Okay…well I’m always interested in artists and the process of song selection. On this album, you cover Spoonful and of course you write songs as well…I guess what I’m asking is how do the songs come together for a CD or an “album.”

RF: You mean like I why play the music I play on a record?

JB: Well for instance, why was it on this CD that you decided to cover Spoonful?

RF: Well I never would’ve recorded that song in the studio. It just never would’ve happened and so to be making a live record was one of the reasons why I went ahead and did it, because it kind of needed that live context to be convincing…as a performance from a white guy from California. And I always liked the song and always wanted to perform it, but the situation just wasn’t right…you know, until having the band that I made the record with…that band was able to play it for one thing, because people have to really understand the blues, they have to really “get the blues” to record something like that. So there are several reasons…the fact that it was a live recording, the fact that I had the right band to do it and that I finally found an arrangement that I liked…those three things were why I felt comfortable recording Spoonful on this record.

A lot of the other things on the record have been recorded before on studio albums, but the band live is just a whole other ballgame man and I really feel like we captured the band live on this record. You know the performances are really good and the band sounds great. We had a very good engineer recording it. We were in the right room to record it. So everything came together to make this live record happen and people have asked for a live album in the past…fans have always wanted a live record, but I’m glad it didn’t happen until now.

JB: You grew up in California at a type that was ripe for great music and more specifically guitar playing. Did you get a chance to see a lot of those guys in your youth?

RF: Yes I saw absolutely everybody. You can’t name a guitar player that I didn’t see and every guitar player was a “blues guitar player”. So it was an excellent time for guitar, for sure.

JB: Out of curiosity, are there any specific performances that you saw that still today you look back and think “wow that was one of the greatest shows I ever saw”?

RF: Yeah, the first time I saw Cream, first time I saw Jimi Hendrix…the only time I ever saw Jimi Hendrix. Actually it was the only time I ever saw Cream (he laughs) and the bands that I always I just couldn’t wait for them to come back were the Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, Mike Bloomfield’s band. So particularly with guitar, those guys and then of course B.B. King and Albert King. The list just goes on and on…Ten Years After, the first time I saw Ten Years After with Alvin Lee…just blew my mind! Canned Heat, Henry Vastine was a great blues guitar player…the list just goes one and on. I saw everybody.

JB: Clearly Bloomfield had a huge impact on you, did you ever have the opportunity to play with him?

RF: (he shakes his head “no”) I met him once very briefly and I heard later that he was a fan.

JB: Well that had to be thrilling.

RF: It was.

JB: Sadly last week or so, we lost the great Les Paul. Did you ever play with Les?

RF: I did. I met him at the Iridium one night. I just introduced myself. I stood in line with everybody else…introduced myself and then I was invited a little while there after, a few months later I was invited to play his 90th birthday party at the Roseland Ballroom. So I came out for that. I played a little bit with him. I played my own thing and then there was a jam with him and Larry Carlton and me.

JB: Cool. I’m just curious…obviously music is what you’ve decided to do for a living, but is there anything else that you’re really passionate about?

RF: Hmm…

JB: I read that you studied Buddhism for awhile. Is that still something that is important to you?

RF: Yep. It’s something I would like to have more time for…for you know, that kind of practice and I’m going to take that time. Basically…by the end of November, I’m going to really take some time to myself…to practice Buddhist meditation and do some retreats and Qigong, which is a Chinese form of yoga that I’m into.

JB: Is there anything else you’re into? Are you a movie guy?

RF: No

JB: Is there anything else you’re passionate about….

RF: I love art…and cooking!
(he laughs)

JB: Well that’s important. I do as well.

RF: And they are the same thing…art, cooking and music.

JB: Well I know you’re busy and still have to do a soundcheck.

RF: Yeah I need to get out there.

JB: I just want to thank you again for sitting and chatting with me.

RF: Thank you man!

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved.


American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

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Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

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Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

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Jim Stick in Colorado
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