Guitar virtuoso Robben Ford’s new album Into The Sun shines a bright light on his artful, contemporary songwriting and the stunning playing that’s made him a favorite foil of Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison and other legends.
The five-time Grammy nominee describes the 11-song set as “one of the top recordings I’ve ever done” — a staggering observation considering his extensive discography, which embraces more than 35 albums under his own name and with his various bands. There’s also Ford’s session and sideman work, which includes hundreds of concert appearances and albums by Bonnie Raitt, Barbara Streisand, Charlie Musselwhite, KISS, Ruthie Foster, Jimmy Witherspoon and Rickie Lee Jones.
Into the Sun, which follows last year’s critically acclaimed A Day In Nashville and 2013’s Bringing It Back Home, explores the breadth of Ford’s sophisticated, visionary writing and playing, creating a new chapter in his brilliant musical history. The album features a coterie of guests: gritty Southern rock newcomer Tyler Bryant on “Stone Cold Heaven,” Allman Brothers guitarist and Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes on “High Heels And Throwing Things,” slide guitar guru Sonny Landreth on “So Long 4 U,” Americana and blues icon Keb’ Mo’ and pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph on “Justified,” and vocal sensation ZZ Ward on “Breath Of Me.” Niko Bolas, whose credits include Neil Young, John Mayer and Keith Richards, engineered.
“The album is really upbeat,” Ford relates. “It has a positive vibe to it — a good time feel. There are a lot of different rhythms and colors and the way the instruments are used is really different on this and that track. It makes me very happy to have something so diverse.”
Although Ford’s recent releases have been hailed as returns to his musical roots — which go back to his discovery of blues as a teenager in the 1960s – Into The Sun is a clear departure, using tradition as a springboard to incorporate his timeless vocabulary of jazz, pop, blues and rock into a modern framework for his poetic lyrics and the most graceful, emotionally nuanced and melodic vocal performances of his career.
“This album is obviously of these times,” Ford says. “And the rule during the recording process was to have no lid on things. I’ve worked very hard to master my craft as a musician and a songwriter, but other than relying on my strengths in those areas, I made sure there was room for new ideas and everything my collaborators brought to the music. When you’re open to different concepts and approaches, the most beautiful things can happen.”
Beauty is, indeed, a quality reflected in all these tracks, from the pure acoustic guitar that begins the album in Ford’s self-penned “Rose Of Sharon,” to the romantic balance of modern R&B luster, gorgeously emotive guitar and the vocal pairing of Ford and Ward in “Breath Of Me” to the funky crunch of “High Heels And Throwing Things,” where Ford and Haynes engage in a playful six-string dialogue.
All of the music and most of the lyrics from Into The Sun came directly from Ford, but he also collaborated with ZZ Ward on!“Breath Of Me” and enlisted the enigmatic Kyle Swan, whose own recordings liberally mix images and styles to build articulate modernist-pop tone poems. That quality reverberates in the four songs Ford co-wrote with Swan, married to the guitar giant’s own deep commitment to narrative. “Working with Kyle was part of my desire to toss up everything and see what might happen, to get a fresh perspective,” says Ford.
Swan wrote the last verse of “Cause Of War,” which Ford composed under the influence of the melody to bluesman J.B. Lenoir’s “The Whale Has Swallowed Me.” The song, about a woman who’s trouble, thrives on a two-chord vamp like a vintage Mississippi blues, but with it’s powerhouse drum accents and Ford’s ringing 63 SG licks through a Tweed amp, wiggy vibrato and growling rhythms, the tune is a thoroughly modern and toothy beast. “Day Of The Planets” does the same for a classic Memphis soul groove, with an arcing vocal melody leading to choruses that surge anthemically on waves of shimmering guitar. And “Justified” is a sheer gas with Keb’ Mo’ and Ford trading tongue-in-cheek vocal lines as Randolph adds soaring pedal steel punctuation over Jim Cox’s purposefully wobbly honky tonk piano.
Into The Sun was recorded by Bolas, a collaborator of Ford’s since his all-instrumental 1997 album Tiger Walk. “Niko is simply the best tracking engineer I’ve ever encountered,” says Ford. “He gets great sounds instantly.” All the better to capture Ford’s glorious guitar tones, this time derived from four of his go-to instruments: a pair of Gibson SG’s from 1963 and 1964, his beloved 1960 Telecaster and his Gibson B-25 acoustic. As he’s done on every album he’s made since 1983, Ford used a Dumble Overdrive Special amplifier.
“I go for very big and very real guitar sounds, with no more then a little delay and reverb,” he explains. “I like a great guitar through a great amp, and from there I’m golden.”
Under the spell of early blues-rock guitar hero Michael Bloomfield, Ford took up the six-string as a teenager. He and his brothers Mark and Patrick formed the Charles Ford Blues Band, which still performs today as the Ford Blues Band. They quickly graduated from high school dances to clubs before Robben and Patrick began supporting harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite.! Later, Robben played with blues giant Jimmy Witherspoon on festival stages. In 1974, Robben joined the historic fusion group Tom Scott & The L.A. Express and began touring with Joni Mitchell. Later that year ex-Beatle George Harrison enlisted Ford and Scott to join him on his Dark Horse tour, which was followed by more touring with Joni Mitchell. Ford went on to record and tour with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh and a host of others. By the time he joined Miles Davis’ group in the ’80s, he’d developed a signature approach based on an axis of blues, jazz, pop and rock. Since leaving Davis’ band, Ford has primarily forged his own path — touring and cutting a series of varied sounding albums with the Ford Brothers, Blue Line and Renegade featuring fellow guitar master Michael Landau.
“For me,” Ford says, “it’s all about the art. If you work hard at something you’re going to get better. I honestly think I reached a point with my writing on Into The Sun where I could just go with the flow and bring some of the best songs I’ve ever created to life.”