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MUSIC : Blues Burner : Guitarists Robben Ford and Larry Carlton share the stage at the Ventura Theater Saturday.

February 04, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A month ago, Anaheim was crawling with music-related humanity. All weekend, deals were being struck like drum back beats at the huge annual National Assn. of Music Merchants (NAMM) show, and all manner of onlookers caused the Anaheim population to swell temporarily.

And at the key concert event on Saturday night, guitarist Robben Ford was taking the minds of two overflow crowds off business, showing them just what the blues are, according to his private gospel. That gospel will hit town when he plays the Ventura Theater Saturday, in a guitarists' double-header with his old pal Larry Carlton.

There he was at NAMM, armed with a winning smile and a winning style, spraying the hall with some of the tastiest licks in town. Make that the world.

But the world doesn't know it yet. Ford should be as well-known as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose mantle as great white blues guitar hope he deserves to inherit.

The deceptively easygoing Ford burst on the scene about 20 years ago, a prodigy from Northern California who landed in Joni Mitchell's band. That's his sweet solo in "In France, They Kiss on Main Street."

Ford's resume as a sideman by now includes George Harrison, Little Feat (who, at one point, asked him to join), Miles Davis, Rickie Lee Jones--playing subtle acoustic guitar on her "Pop Pop" album--and countless one-day stands in the studio.

His fan base includes great jazz keyboardist Chick Corea, who sat in on an encore in Anaheim, and who signed Ford to his new label, Stretch.

That new album, "Robben Ford and the Blue Line," is only his third solo album since his stellar, mostly instrumental 1978 debut, "Inside Story." That album led to the formation of the Yellowjackets, which went on to success without their founding guitarist, who left after the second album.

Meanwhile, Ford has been battling record company abuses and indifference. Chalk it up to bad synchronization with the music fashion police, coupled with Ford's disinclination toward compromise.

Just what are the blues and how do you get 'em? Ford's answer differs from most of his blues-steeped compadres.

He can squeeze out sparks with the best of 'em. But a sense of jazz phrasing feeds his playing, and, as a former horn player, he knows the importance of breathing. He punctuates his lines, gives them contour and doesn't forget the poetry.

What more could you ask from a guitar hero? In conversation, Ford is amiable, unpretentious, and only a tad bitter from his record company war wounds.

*

Do you have a love/hate relationship with L. A. and/or the industry?

I have no love for it. The other side of it is the way things are now. The new label is Stretch records, the mother company being GRP, owned and run by Chick Corea and his partner, Ron Moss.

It's turning into a beautiful situation. I had trepidation at first because, if anything, I've been trying to break the perception of myself as a jazz artist, fusion artist, studio musician type. That was pinned on me a long time ago. I've been trying to break it for years.

But I talked with them about it and they completely understood my perspective.

*

Being the only chord instrument in a trio must be a pressurized situation. Is there also a lot of freedom in that?

There can be, and that is where I relate to the jazz sensibility coming into play. You have to trust the space, and it's tough. It's hard to trust a space when you're out on a limb. When it's just three guys, it's such a naked feeling. It can work, but it takes a lot of faith. There's a leap of faith.

It's happened a few times with the group, where the whole thing is just playing itself and I could just not play, and yet it's so complete, with nothing missing. The space is completely electrified and juicy. That's the greatest experience I've ever had in my life. It's hard to come by.

*

You're playing the blues, but not in a purist, straight-down-the-middle way. Is it important to you to add those twists?

It's part of my background. I know about throwing the baby out with the bathwater (laughs). You don't want to do that. It's a big mistake. We're covering all of the musical ground in our background. But I wouldn't mind, eventually, starting to bring back more harmonic interest--the chords and a little more of the jazz sensibilities.

The one band that I have consistently returned to as one that we're somewhat analogous to is Cream. They went from being a blues band into being an out-there rock band. We're venturing into that rock territory.

*

So you're not completely grounded in the idea of being a blues entity?

Not at all. It's something that I've been trying to establish, so that I could go out from there.

"Talk to Your Daughter" came out in '88 and that should have been a great beginning. (Warner Bros. records) should have let us do another record. So things got put off for another four years. Give me a break.

I really wondered what I should do for the next record. You do a blues record, you get nominated for a Grammy, and people are kicking you around. So, should I do another blues record? Should I start playing with other guys on their records? You really wonder.

*

Do you have a vague sense of everything suddenly working for you now instead of coming apart?

Yeah, and no one thing is more important than the other. Career isn't more important than home life. It appears to take a front seat. I'll tell you that, because we work real hard. We work three-fourths of the year.

There is some fruition. Things are sort of blossoming, and that's wonderful. But it's more than on just a business level.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Robben Ford and Larry Carlton will perform Saturday at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St. in Ventura. For more information call 648-1888.

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