You can’t help but wonder about the mechanics at work when Robben Ford and Larry Carlton work a stage together. Both are monster players with a deep bag of tricks. Carlton has turned an insanely successful ’70s studio career into a jazz and jazz/rock career of stunning breadth, and Ford is an uppercut blues/blues-rock player with gigs from Jimmy Witherspoon to Joni Mitchell to Miles Davis on his rap sheet, always nipping around the fringes of scenes but scrupulously avoiding deep association with any single one.
Guitar is, by its nature, a lead instrument, and finding a way to get two master players to channel symbiotically isn’t necessarily as easy as it looks.
Ask them both, and what you get resonates neatly with their playing styles — Ford the deeply organic, sparkplug-spontaneous, play-from-the-gut personality, and Carlton the master technician, covering his bases first before straying outside the lines.
“Everybody plays differently given the situation. Well — anybody who’s a good musician,” Ford tells us. “Y’know, it’s hard to describe exactly. … Ultimately, you’re just looking for that magical balance, where everybody’s just tuned in to each other.
“On a high level, music is instinctual the way we play, because it’s improvisational. There’s a strong jazz and blues component to what we do, and yeah, good instincts are important. … And Larry, y’know, he’s just got a lot to say on the guitar.”
For the last couple of years, Carlton’s been playing out on trio dates, borrowing his son Travis from Ford’s band to play bass. It is a far cry from the many fullband contexts in his long history, coaxing fills with backup singers and horns and strings and warmly sympathetic keys. Not exactly a power trio the way old-schoolers might think of it, but a surprising blend of chops, crafty harmonic invention, improv and composition.
“What comes to mind is, when I’m doing the trio setting, I do feel an obligation to the listener … that I don’t just play a bunch of stuff, but that I actually imply harmony in my solos enough that they go ‘oh yeah, that’s where he’s at.’ Maybe it’s Mom and Pop, who just want to hear the guitar. … They’re not thinking about the changes,” Carlton says. “Robben — he likes to change songs more than I do. I may get there that day and he may say, ‘Hey Larry, I wanna do this song tonight,’” Carlton says.
Ford admits he’s got a natural discomfort about getting too comfortable with one gig.
“I like to play new music … music that I haven’t played before. And I write a lot. And when you write, you kind of have to let things flow, otherwise you’re copying yourself, or copying something else. Writing has become very important to me, and consequently what I do doesn’t fit neatly into one bag, because all the elements that I like in music are hovering around in there somewhere,” Ford says. “I get bored quickly. Just about anybody I’ve ever worked for, I got bored.
Except for Joni Mitchell. ’Cause the music was just so beautiful, and she was just so brilliant.”
Even the Miles gig? “Yeah. … That’s why I quit, actually. At the time, the record was Tutu. He started taking out a lot of the freer pieces, and he’d go,” — here Ford begins affecting Davis’ toxic rasp — “‘Robben, play that shit just like the record.’ He was really wanting to represent the Tutu record, whereas before, we’d play four pieces from the record interspersed with other things. And so, I just said, ‘Eh, I didn’t come here to do this.’” But Carlton isn’t as uncomfortable with long relationships. He just retired earlier this year from a guitar seat in Fourplay, the massively successful contemporary jazz quartet that included Bob James and Harvey Mason, after a 12-year run.
He also has no problem revisiting something old — like the handful of big city dates he did this past summer, reprising his lead guitar role on Steely Dan’s tour, resurrecting The Royal Scam and Aja in all their twisted glory. He obliged the Boulder Theater audience last summer with an off-the-cuff rendering (letter perfect) of that diabolical solo from “Kid Charlemagne,” from The Royal Scam.
“From the very invitation, they made it clear: no rehearsal, just show up for these nine dates. I mean, it had been over 30 years since I played these tunes. So I went back and did some homework, re-learned the ‘Kid Charlemagne’ solo,” Carlton says. “Their guitarist and musical director, Jon Herrington, took great care of me. He took all the parts that I had played on the records so that I wouldn’t have to learn them all. I’d say, ‘Jon, just tell me when my solo is coming up.’” We ask Ford if there is anything like a little rivalry when he and Carlton are tearing it up together.
“Oh no,” he laughs. “There’d be no point in that.”
On the Bill
Carlton Trio featuring Robben Ford play the Boulder Theater on
Thursday, April 29. Doors at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $43. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.