Robben Ford: Bringing It Back Home

There’s a lot to like about this rootsy excursion. First off, the lineup assembled by Robben Ford, the veteran, Grammy-winning guitarist, is top drawer, with trombonist Stephen Baxter, organist Larry Goldings, bassist David Piltch and drummer Harvey Mason. Add to that some smart tune choices, material by the likes of Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Johnny Fuller and Big Joe Williams. Finally, there’s the leader’s expert guitar work, purposely unembellished for this relaxed, soulful occasion, and all the more evocative for it. What’s missing, though, is a singer who commands attention no matter the mood or groove.

Ford’s interpretations are straightforward and earnest, rendered without a hint of affectation. But for all his sincerity, he lacks the vocal power and personality to deliver a series of memorable performances. So it isn’t surprising that when King’s “Trick Bag” or Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise” roll around, the tight, shrewdly arranged ensemble tracks easily trump the vocals.

Fortunately, the distinctive instrumentation offers ample compensation. The presence of trombonist Baxter is especially welcome: He adds Crescent City color and Stax-ish punctuations when needed, and often provides nimble counterpoint and harmony when Ford’s clipped guitar riffs and incisive solos are the primary focus. Of course, Ford is very much a part of the rhythm section this time around, and he and his colleagues have no problem conjuring (and sharply syncopating) a blend of Southern funk, blues and soul grooves. The guitarist, who has a hand in the songwriting, also contributes one of the album’s highlights, the plaintive ballad “Oh, Virginia.”