Robben Ford by Mascha Thompson

Though he’s an exceptional blues and jazz guitarist, Robben Ford has never restricted himself to any one style. His tremendous career began in the 1970s and continues on with vital energy. The list of luminaries to whom Ford has lent his signature dynamic riffs and inventive solos, in live settings or the studio, hints at the idiomatic diversity at his command. Jazz icon Miles Davis included Ford in his band in the 1980s. Ford and his brother Pat, a drummer, have played on several of blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite’s albums. In the mid-’70s, Ford joined the jazz fusion group The L.A. Express, and you hear him with the group backing Joni Mitchell on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Jump-blues maestro Jimmy Witherspoon, soul queen Mavis Staples, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, and even guitar wizards like Susan Tedeschi, John Mayall, Brad Paisley and Larry Carlton have all worked with Ford in one capacity or another.

Ford has received five Grammy nominations over the past three decades while cutting albums for several storied labels, among them Arhoolie (with his brothers under the name Charles Ford Band), Elektra, Warner Bros, Stretch/GRP, Provogue (which issued Ford’s classic 2014 release A Day in Nashville) and Concord. He co-founded much-loved jazz fusion group Yellow Jackets in the late ’70s and led a fine blues-rock trio called The Blue Line through most of the ’90s, and between 2001 and 2004, he made three outstanding records with the eclectic and entertaining trio Jing Chi, featuring bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

But Ford’s latest, Pure, released Aug. 27 via Ear Music, stands out even in such a wide-ranging catalog. It’s his first instrumental album since 1997’s acclaimed Tiger Walk, and the compositions run the gamut from jazz to R&B to funk to electric blues — all traditions near and dear to him.

“I called this album Pure because I really wanted to get back to the core of music, to the essence of sound,” Ford tells the Scene. “The beauty and power of playing is something that’s very personal to me, and I wanted this album to reflect that. I really went all out musically on it — the melodies, some of the complex chords. These are compositions that I started working on back in May of 2020. It really took time to get things exactly right and get the sound that I wanted. For a long time I’ve thought about, ‘How do I make my playing work within certain frameworks with lyrics? What are the right notes to play in certain settings?’ This time I thought more about creating beautiful melodies, about making extended statements.”

Pure was co-produced by Ford and Casey Wasner and recorded primarily at Purple House Recording Studio in Leiper’s Fork, with additional recording done at Sound Emporium Studios and Blackbird Studios. The results reflect a grand combination of impressive technique and memorable tunes, particularly on such evocative pieces as “Blues for Lonnie Johnson,” which gives Ford room to stretch out in a luxurious blues groove. The driving roadhouse blues workout “White Rock Beer...8 Cents” rolls on for nearly six minutes, while the funky, horn-laced “Go” clocks in at just over five. The finale “If You Want Me To” brings all of those talents to bear on a rootsy, muscular piece that recalls Little Feat. (You won’t be surprised to learn that Ford played with them briefly, as well.) All nine selections are brilliantly executed, with Ford — a master at playing either with a pick or using his fingers — carefully building tension and navigating through the structure of each in ways that are delightfully unpredictable.

“I’m as proud of this one as anything I’ve ever done,” Ford says. “I really felt like now was the right time to make this type of album. Over the past few years I’ve focused on being a singer-songwriter and adjusted my playing to fit into that format. This time I got to really spotlight the instrumental side, and I think it really worked out well.”

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