In ancient times when music was considered a tangible possession, music lovers placed their prized vinyl albums in wooden or plastic milk crates. Guests could enter your living room, look through your albums, and find out who you are, and what you’re about. With this idea in mind, I present to you a series of articles about guitar records from the past titled: Albums From The Milk Crate.
Producer: Tommy LiPuma
Robben Ford was on a roll. In the 1970’s he was in his twenties touring with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon, which led to him being seen by sax player Tom Scott of The L.A. Express. Scott was backing up Joni Mitchell for her Court and Spark tour and needed a guitar player. Ford was recruited and spent most of 1974 playing Joni’s music, which in tern led to an invitation to join George Harrison’s touring band.
By the late 70’s Ford was ready to record his first solo record. Titled The Inside Story, he put a band together that included keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip, and drummer Ricky Lawson.
Ford was signed to Elektra Records but the band wasn’t, so his manager suggested they shop a separate deal for the group, since the band was pretty much a fusion band. Ford was moving toward more vocal oriented material. They got a separate deal with the Warner label using the band name Yellowjackets. Ford became a featured guest artist with the group, and the first Yellowjackets album was simply titled Yellowjackets.
The album marks a strange place in music history. It’s West Coast jazz-funk that falls between the cracks of 70’s fusion, and what would later become known as smooth jazz. It has elements of both genres, but lacks the super-cerebral, sausage fest odd time signatures of the former, and the heavily chorused mind-numbing textures of the latter. The level of musicianship is very high and edgy. It’s melodic jazz-funk with cool tunes, tight arrangements, and the incendiary blues-fusion playing of Robben Ford.
The compositions “Matinee Idol” and “Imperial Strut” kick things off. Written by Russell Ferrante, these tunes set the tone for the record. Ford cuts loose on “Imperial Strut” with its long unison keyboard and guitar bop lines. He also takes an incredible “Must Learn” guitar solo, showcasing the stuff that has made him such a hero amongst fans of bop-blues guitar playing. His phrasing is flawless, soulful, and all done with a very righteous Gibson 335.
“Sittin’ In It” and “Rush Hour” continue the set with a very West Coast Steely Dan vibe and a very deep groove. Drummer Ricky Lawson gives this record an undeniable thump and infectious rhythmic feel. Ford is the co-writer on “Rush Hour.” You can hear his love of horn players like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Ornette Coleman. He’s nailing all the changes with grace, passion, and a wide assortment of elevated blues concepts, and nasty double stop rock bends.
“The Hornet,” “Priscilla,” and “It’s Almost Gone” finish off the album. Ford burns throughout with dirty overdriven rock tones and slippery intervallic jazz lines. To many, this was their first introduction to Robben Ford and the world of commercial, toe-tapping, funk-fusion. Because of the clear production value, it hasn’t aged at all and remains a benchmark for many guitarists who aspire to follow in Ford’s melodic footsteps. Yellowjackets went to #16 on Billboard’s Jazz Album charts. Ford was replaced by sax player Richard Elliott and went on to play with Miles Davis, Kiss, and record more solo records. The rest is history.