Robben Ford

(LP - Ear Music #216933)

Review by Thom Jurek

Guitarist Robben Ford is among the most traveled musicians of the last five decades. As a sideman, he has worked alongside legends including Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Witherspoon, Miles Davis, George Harrison, Mavis Staples, and Joni Mitchell, just to name a few. As a leader, he's recorded a diverse body of work that cuts across and/or melds blues, jazz, rock, funk, soul, country, and fusion. Pure, his first instrumental date since 1997's Grammy-nominated Tiger Walk, altered his normal recording process with excellent results. Ford usually enters the recording studio with a band, cuts tracks for a few days, then fixes mistakes and adds overdubs during post-production. He started out that way here, too. Along the way, something didn't sound right; the other players were influencing the music too much. Ford and co-producer/engineer Casey Wasner went back to the drawing board. Wasner recorded Ford playing all guitars and most keyboards. When they finished, they dubbed in various rhythm sections and saxophonists Bill Evans and Jeff Coffin.

The brief title-track opener is an interlude. Lasting less than two minutes, it offers Ford's oud-like acoustic intro under a biting single-string jazz-funk electric, with funky drums and bass. "White Rock Beer...8 Cents" is a swaggering blues shuffle as Ford's layered guitars meet and dialogue at the top of the mix with a shuffling drum kit (by his brother Patrick Ford) and a walking bassline. His fills and solo crisscross the Texas, Chicago, and West Coast traditions amid buoyant, jazzy keyboards and swinging horns. "Balafon" is the only track not to feature Ford on keyboards; instead, he drafted former Yellowjackets' bandmate Russell Ferrante to add Wurlitzer electric piano with a rumbling bass, and insistent snares and floor toms. They wrap labyrinthine guitar passages in a pulsing blue funk. "Go" owes a debt to the influence of James Brown. The interplay between Ford's guitar and the saxophonists entwines in a finger-popping melody and skeletal R&B vamp, all while riding an infectious funk groove. "Blues for Lonnie Johnson" weds the strolling Texas blues tradition to 21st century Chicago with haunted B-3 atop the saxes and a shuffling rhythm section while Ford delivers his finest solo on the set. "A Dragon's Tail" joins jazz-funk and prog with carefully woven keyboards and intricately layered guitars. The full reprised version of the title track shines with a polyrhythmic union of tablas, an oud, a drum kit, and Ford's spaced-out layers of arpeggiated melodic soloing. Pure is a perfectly balanced outing, contrasting the electric and the organic with contemporary production. While deeply focused, it presents these compositions with a truly relaxed vibe dictated by requisite good taste.