Californian guitarist Robben Ford began writing songs as a 17-year-old and earned his start as a guitarist with brothers Mark (harmonica) and Pat (drums) in the Charles Ford band, which was named after their father, a former amateur country singer. The band was the first of a number of outfits that led Ford to The Blue Line, with whom he recorded several albums in the 90s, among them Mystic Mile and Handful Of Blues.
Listen to Handful Of Blues right now.
Prior to that, Robben had been the lead player in Charlie Musselwhite’s group before earning a reputation as an accomplished jazz soloist, especially for his work with contemporary bands such as Tom Scott’s LA Express (which backed Joni Mitchell in the mid-70s) and the popular Yellowjackets. In the 80s, he had a six-month stint touring with Miles Davis.
The heart and soul of Ford’s playing, however, is the blues (though, admittedly, he is one of its funkiest, jazziest practitioners), and his range is represented in the fine album Handful Of Blues. The album was recorded with his trio The Blue Line at the now-defunct Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, and released on August 31, 1995, when Ford was 44.
The Blue Line was comprised of Ford, bassist Roscoe Beck, and drummer Tom Brechtlein, another jazz fusion player who had been part of Chick Corea’s band. Ford said that the trio’s creativity came from a mutual feeling that they were playing with peers, working hard, and were all on the same musical wavelength. “It is hard to find that kind of synchronicity,” he said.
Handful Of Blues covers a variety of styles, including jazz-blues balladry (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”), Texas shuffle (“Tired Of Talkin”) and jump blues (“The Miller’s Son”). It opens with the pulsating “Ragged Road,” which was given a promo video to coincide with a West Coast tour the band made in support of Handful Of Blues. This upbeat, rock-influenced song features the sort of clean and exquisitely formed lines and groove that are associated with Ford.
The importance of Daniel Kortchmar
It’s followed by “Chevrolet,” a song that Taj Mahal recorded in the late 60s. Ford’s version features his brother Mark on harmonica, while the rhythm guitar is supplied by producer Daniel Kortchmar, a celebrated guitarist and songwriter who helped defined the sound of the singer-songwriter boom of the 70s, and had worked with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young and David Crosby (among others). He also produced and wrote songs with Jackson Browne. During the 90s, when Kortchmar was working with Ford, he was also the musical foil for ex-Eagle Don Henley.
Kortchmar made Ford’s music accessible to a non-blues audience, and the guitarist said, “Danny’s main gift to the record was: he kept us from beating anything to death and he made sure everything was fresh.”
Where Ford was coming from
That is especially true of the slower “When I Leave Here,” a blues song written by Ford that is based around his soulful chord-based guitar riff, and on which Ford sings with his heartfelt and clear vocals. Elsewhere, “The Miller’s Son,” a fiery instrumental, showcases the sort of guitar skills that appeal to fans of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Ford’s blues playing is first-rate and his solos reveal flashes of imagination and musical virtuosity.
The Blue Line had started off playing more jazz-influenced music, but by the time of this album, Ford said they wanted to make “a very pure blues and R&B kind of statement.” Ford told Billboard in 1995, “The strongest thing in my musical body is all of these blues influences, and I feel that my approach to the blues is very honest, and it’s not just, ‘Let’s do a blues record, what do you say?’ I’ve continually returned to the sources for my inspiration and, at the same time, I’m emulating them. I made it a point to keep it personal.”
As well as jazz soloists, Ford’s key inspirations include Albert Collins, BB King and Willie Dixon. Ford has recorded several Dixon songs down the years, and another of the highlights here is a version of Dixon’s classic Chicago blues “I Just Want to Make Love To You.” Ford’s version is at a relaxed tempo with a nod to BB King in the swooning notes.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song written for Nina Simone and covered by numerous bands, including The Animals, features Russell Ferrante on piano and Ricky Peterson on organ. But the focus of the arrangement is Ford’s guitar and his passionate solo.
An original number, “Think Twice,” shows off Ford’s fluid jazz and funk stylings in a composition by bassist Roscoe Beck. Other originals on the 12-song, 55-minute album include “When I Leave Here,” “Running Out On Me” and the excellent old-fashioned blues shuffle track “Tired Of Talkin’.”
Ford is one of the rare, supremely talented guitarists who, given all that technique, still plays straight from the heart. It’s this fervent quality that makes Handful Of Blues one of his most personal and successful albums.