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[whitespace] Robben Ford Playin' It by Ear: Guitarist Robben Ford's real musical genius lies in his improvisational forays.

Photograph by Henry Diltz

The Sound Barrier

New Music Works opens its season with a program of improvisation and a superstar soloist

By Rob Pratt

COMPOSER AND conductor Phil Collins is scrambling to put the finishing touches on the program for New Music Works' season-opening concert--even two weeks before the downbeat. It's a big concert, including the premiere of three new pieces (one of which is Collins' Through) and a handful of new orchestrations of blues and jazz classics.

The main problem right now, though, is figuring out how to make room for a stellar featured player who doesn't like to read music. It's not that he can't read music--a performer like guitar god Robben Ford, who's taken the stage with legends from Muddy Waters to Miles Davis to Joni Mitchell, can certainly read a sheet of manuscript. But, Collins says, Ford's real genius is when he's playing by ear.

"Our part in it is to give him a chance to have great fun," Collins says, explaining Ford's improvisational role on one of the featured works, an interpretation of John Cage's Variations II. "I'll give him a thorough chart with a sense of proportion and when things happen. But because he's a man of the ear and an improviser by nature, I feel comfortable having him do that--and that's exactly what John Cage was after."

IMPROVISATION, though, is nothing new to Collins and New Music Works. Always aiming to incorporate elements of theater into programs of contemporary classical music, Collins has frequently turned to works that call for improvisation--both from players following a baton and from the conductor.

It was a show at the Pacific Avenue "earthquake pit" when Collins led the New Music Works Ensemble through a collaborative work with the Moving & Storage Performance Co./Crash, Burn & Die Dance Co. that first interested Ford in working with the group. For that 1997 performance, a piece titled The Stockpile Waltz, Collins composed a number of musical themes, and the ensemble played them according to conducted cues instead of a predetermined score.

"[Bassist] Stan Poplin played in my band in high school, and he's one of my old friends," Ford says. "He approached me about playing with New Music Works, and I was of course interested. What they're doing is very experimental."

"Stan [who also plays with the New Music Works Ensemble] thought Robben might be interested in exploring something along the lines of what we were doing--and he liked the instrumentation," Collins adds. "I myself grew up a guitarist, and literally, when I saw Robben playing with Jim Chanteloup, he was so far superior to my teacher ... and other people I had heard before that I was just blown away. I took it upon myself to do a number of pieces that the ensemble would open up for him."

THOUGH LATELY MOST identified with the blues, Ford during a decades-long career has taken turns through almost every form of popular music. First coming to prominence in the early '70s with Jimmy Witherspoon, Ford later landed high-profile gigs with Tom Scott's L.A. Express and with Joni Mitchell during the height of her popularity.

For his bandleading debut, 1979's The Inside Story, Ford assembled a group that morphed into the Yellowjackets (which he joined only for the band's first album), and soon landed a spot with Miles Davis' landmark fusion bands of the mid-'80s. Founding the Blue Line in 1992, he reached his widest recognition as a blues player capable of dizzying dynamic range and improvisations every bit as emotionally thrilling as intellectually complex.

But since disbanding the Blue Line in 1997, Ford has been musically searching, playing with an eclectic lineup on has last two albums, 1998's Tiger Walk and last year's Supernatural, a moody collection, including the original "If," featured on the program for Sunday's concert. Oddly, he says, he feels like he's finally hit home with his musical influences.

"Supernatural is a real indication of what I'm essentially about musically," Ford explains. "I've always been into a variety of music--American music, for the most part, and music that has come out of America."

It's also a tour de force for a player who brings a classical music performer's attention to tone, dynamic and phrasing to pop styles.

"The electric guitar at the beginning is a fairly simple instrument," he says. "Just learn a few chords, and you can play pretty much the whole rock & roll songbook. But blues guitar greats have always had a variety of sounds and dynamics they get out of it. Albert King and Mike Bloomfield were the first people I heard do that. I walked into the Fillmore Auditorium one night to see Albert, and he brought the band down to a whisper. It just stunned me."

IT'S THOSE KINDS of contrasts that Collins aims to showcase with Sunday's program, subtitled "Breaking Sound Barriers." The long program includes an orchestral reworking of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," a pair of Ford's recent originals, a trio of Kurt Weill songs featuring Ford's wife, Anne Kerry Ford, as well as adventurous new pieces by New Music Works favorites Allen Strange and Jon Scoville.

Though he says it's not a theme he has explicitly pursued with the program, Collins explains that improvisation informs almost all of the pieces on the concert. "For Allen Strange's Elemental Vamp--a 21st-century vampire's lament--Gaben Chancellor is setting Allen's score to computer graphics," Collins says. "He uses his own system of notation, and it's a great visual relative to what you're hearing underneath the words."

Also featured is the premiere of Scoville's Ice 5, a piece written for tape and two featured soloists (a "beguiling five-four, spacey piece," Collins says) and the premiere of Collins' Through, another piece that's difficult to notate according to established conventions.

"I'll prepare Robben by sending tapes of rehearsals," he adds. "I'll also send him notes on a few scales to draw upon and a few themes. It's kind of a mixolydian scale ... but it doesn't really have the flavor of the blues."

New Music Works and Robben Ford perform Sunday (Jan. 16) at 8pm at UCSC Music Center Recital Hall. Tickets are $16 adults/$13 students and seniors/$8 UCSC Students (831.459.2159)

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From the January 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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