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A Jazzed-Up Reunion for 2 Longtime Friends : It's been two decades since Robben Ford and Roger Kellaway first crossed paths. Now, they're joining forces at Wheeler Hot Springs.

November 10, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was 20 years ago today, give or take a few, that Robben Ford first fell into Roger Kellaway's orbit. Blame it on Joni Mitchell, who had the good instincts to hire them both for a celebrated tour in 1974.

The two musicians were on alternate paths, by age and musical endeavor. Kellaway, studied in jazz and classical music, was a well-established figure in jazz and studio circles and had released the first of his innovative Cello Quartet albums.

Ford was a new kid in town, having blown into Los Angeles from Northern California as part of Jimmy Witherspoon's band, and quickly began making a mark for himself with his extra-tasty melding of blues, jazz and other music. Between them, Ford and Kellaway, along with the rest of the L. A. Express, which served as Mitchell's band, painted a fetching backdrop of sophistication and lyricism.

A bond was born. Which makes the upcoming Ford-Kellaway reunion at Wheeler Hot Springs this Sunday something of a historic occasion, even though Ford may humbly shrug it off as a casual jazz gig.

Although they have crossed paths over the years, this will be the first time that they have played a gig together as a duo, joined here by former L. A. Express drummer John Guerin and bassist Dave Carpenter.

"We were living in New York at the same time, but both traveling a lot," Ford said last week in an interview. "We're rekindling an old friendship, an old relationship. At Wheeler, we'll probably play mostly standards. We might play a few original compositions. I will, of course, acquiesce to what his desires are."

Although his own reputation has put him in the higher ranks of guitarists on the scene, Ford is humbled in the presence of Kellaway.

"Roger became a real mentor for me," he said. "He had such a big musical mind and was such a brilliant pianist, and I also just liked him as a person. More than any other musician I've met since, he really influenced me. I was ripe for it at that point in my life and was looking for something a little higher.

"He was a fully realized and mature musician, and I was a guy who was still struggling with his instrument, as far as I was concerned."

Retracing the steps of his meeting with Kellaway, Ford remembered that, before he was inducted into the group, "the L. A. Express was a band of studio musicians, basically, who came together to play, have some fun and make a record. Joni Mitchell's producer brought her out to hear the band, saying, 'There are some musicians here that I think you might enjoy working with.' "

She did, and recorded her "Court and Spark" album with the group. But guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Joe Sample were also in the Crusaders and didn't want to go on the road. Into those chairs fell Kellaway and Ford.

Although Kellaway never recorded with Mitchell, Ford did, and played the memorable guitar solo on her hit "In France They Kiss on Main Street." He remembers the recording session vividly.

"Joan was always interested in experimenting. She would say, 'Why don't we try this or that?' I would have an opinion about it and sometimes I might say 'sure.' But other times, it would be, 'No, you don't want to do that.' That happened on a few occasions, and she was always right.

"That guitar solo was recorded using a little MXR fuzz-tone box plugged directly into the recording console. Not to be using an actual guitar amplifier with a microphone on it just seemed absurd to me.

"I was objecting. We just sat there, and we'd take it eight bars by eight bars. We'd stop, she'd go back and say, 'Try something that sounds like blah blah blah right here.' She basically walked me through a great deal of it. She'd make suggestions and then I would just play. It was wild, because I was so against it at first."

Ford's solo career has been a stop-start affair ever since that time 20 years ago when his first plans were rerouted. After the high-profile Mitchell job, he was lured into various sideman work with George Harrison, Michael McDonald and Miles Davis.

But the guitarist has a personal statement to make, as well. His 1979 album "The Inside Story," in the clear light of hindsight, is among the finest albums in the annals of fusion. That album led to formation of the Yellowjackets.

As a blues-vocal artist, Ford recorded the fine album "Talk to Your Daughter" for Warner Bros. in the mid-'80s and then slipped away from the marketplace again until this decade. With his Robben Ford and Blue Line, he has finally hit a stride and released two records for Chick Corea's Stretch label.

There have been projects in the cracks, such as drummer Jerry Granelli's inventive "A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing" (Evidence), on which the band features both Ford and the more textural guitarist Bill Frisell.

"He's one of my favorites," Ford said of Frisell. "His uniqueness makes him irresistible. You can't argue with something like that, in my book." The same could be said of the man with the kind words and good ideas.

Not one to stick with a formula, Ford seems to examine whatever situation he's in at a given moment. For now, the Blue Line trio is keeping him busy, touring the world and planning to record again in January.

"The group has gone through a lot together, musically. It's an interesting thing, because every time I think it's about time to add somebody new to the group, the trio does something different." He laughed softly. "Then, it's like, 'Why don't we do this some more?' "

Details

* WHAT: Robben Ford and Roger Kellaway will perform a dinner concert.

* WHEN: Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30.

* WHERE: Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway, Ojai.

* COST: $50 per person, includes dinner and concert.

* CALL: 646-8131.

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