See Steve's Hand-Written Solo Transcription

Robben Ford's solo on:

"Naima"(John Coltrane)

    In today's world, we are afforded many, many new and interesting ways of being exposed to new music, new artists, and new recordings. On many cable tv systems, such as our Time Warner of New York City, we are offered all the MusicChoice channels, which function as 'radio stations' with each channel offering a genre or sub-genre. So, we have the "Jazz" Channel(#630) and, we also have the "Smooth Jazz" Channel(#629). In truth, this is actually how I try to keep in touch with the new and/or recent recordings. Sometimes, if I hear something that I don't like, I quickly flip the channel to the other 'station' and see what's there. It was just this kind of reaction that led me to discover yet another interpretation of John Coltrane's classic ballad, "Naima." As I was listening, I couldn't help but notice the striking and emotional approach of the guitarist. Though I couldn't be certain, it certainly sounded like it might have been Robben Ford.THE BIG PICTURE - Shapes This was my guess because the graphics which are supplied by the channel only listed the song, the artist, which was Shapes; and their recording, which was titled: "THE BIG PICTURE." As it turned out, I had some recollection of this project, because my good friend, and Yellowjackets co-founder, Jimmy Haslip was the producer, and he had mentioned this recording to me. Though I could be wrong, I think that the group, Shapes, basically consists of: Roger Burn: Vibes; Tollak Olestad:Chromatic Harmonica; and David Derge: Drums.
    Over the years, players embracing all bents and persuasions have tried various things to personalize their interpretations of "Naima" which first appeared on John Coltrane's "GIANT STEPS" recording from 1959. He went on to record it several more times with his classic quartet that included; McCoy Tyner: Piano; Jimmy Garrison: Ac. Bass; and Elvin Jones: Drums. Another version, which I always liked was recorded in 1967 by alto saxophonist, John Handy on the "NEW VIEW"(Columbia) LP, which featured: Bobby Hutcherson: Vibes; Pat Martino: Guitar; Albert Stinson: Ac. Bass; and Doug Sides: Drums. Like Coltrane's original, I guess one could say that the piece was in the key of Ab major, with the first chord being Bbm7(9). It's interesting that, as you will see, the Shapes interpretation, which credits Tollak Olestad as the arranger, has moved the key to D major, with the first chord being Em7(9). Perhaps, this key was chosen because it fits better with the range of the chromatic harmonica? Or, the melody is just more expressive in that key for this instrument? From a rhythmic perspective, the piece is interpreted here as a light, romantic R&B shuffle, with lush synth pads and textures supplied by acoustic piano, vibes, and even pedal steel guitar.
    The R&B shuffle rhythm is about as close as one gets to a "Jazz" feel in other genres. This is because of the real or implied usage of triplets. There are times when it is even best to notate such things in a 12/8 meter, instead of in 4/4, and then just writing in that it is to be played with a "shuffle feel." The triplet groupings, which appear throughout Robben Ford's solo, are really just part of the 'feel' and these are not things which he, nor anyone else, would be 'thinking' about. The possible down side, for those viewing the solo, is that it makes it appear to be far more complex than it really is. The only truly problematic things to notate are the bends, his usage of vibrato, and his personal ornaments which might accompany a particular bend. So, just be aware of these details as you are following along.
    Generally speaking, I am not a fan of recordings that fall into the "Smooth Jazz" genre. But, when you have a beautiful melody, surrounded by beautiful harmonies, and the expressive qualities of the harmonica and Robben Ford too, how can you go wrong? It speaks volumes for the depth of Robben's playing when you consider that he only plays two 8-bar letter [A] sections for a solo. Yes, he does return with some fills during the Fade, but this is hardly what one would consider to be a 'blowing' session. This recording was crafted by a different aesthetic. I recall the first time I heard it, I was struck by the romantic nature of how the harmonica stated the melodic material, and then, of course, Robben Ford's beautiful guitar sound, and his way of never losing his bluesy roots, even over sophisticated changes, makes his solo here very moving and expressive.
    Robben's solo begins over the 8-bar interlude which follows the principal statement of the melody. Normally, in this key, you might expect that they would be playing over 8 bars of Dmaj7(9), but, there seems to be a minor disagreement amongst the players over just when the Dmaj7(#5) sound should begin. I have indicated on the transcription where the vibes and acoustic piano play a little unison line in 3rds, which signals the entrance of the F#/D sonority. However, prior to that, I hear some dissonance, a dischord, and I'm not sure why, in the age of Pro-Tools, that would have remained. In bar 4, of this interlude section, Robben enters playing over what would be considered as a very sophisticated harmonic area. When you are facing a maj7(#5), many players are uncertain as to just what their options might be. The correct chord scale/mode, in this case, is D Lydian Augmented(D, E, F#, G#, A#, B, C#). But, as I like to keep most things related to minor[Dorian or Melodic Minor], I know that this is the same as using B melodic minor(B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A#). Robben takes a very simple approach by melodically outlining the one voicing which contains both A# and 'A'-natural. Most of us have played this particular voicing and thought of it as an A7(b9) sound with the root on the top, except that we would spell the A# as Bb. However, playing it over a Dmaj7#5 sonority is a bit unusual. But, all of this had to be done to accommodate the note in the melody, because as you now can see the 'A'-natural is not in that particular chord scale. As you would expect, Robben has found 'the blues' even in such a sonority. The blues aspect comes from the minor 3rd interval between the high 'A'-natural and the F#. It's interesting that the 'A'-natural continues to 'work' in bar 5 as well. What I mean, when I refer to that interval of a m3rd, is this. If we look at the chord as F#/D, instead as the more technically correct Dmaj7#5, and then, relate to the F#, as if we were playing its own 'blues scale'(F#, A, B, C, C#, E), it can become another way to introduce blues elements over a complex chordal sound. If there is a bit of vibrato on the 'A'-natural, it can make it that much closer to the actual 'chord tone' of A#. All of what Robben plays, in this regard, is prior to the ultimate resolution to the Dmaj7(9) chord in bars 7-8. Throughout this particular analysis, I will try to point out where he chose certain notes which are more consistent with what a blues player might do, as opposed to a more Jazz-oriented player. For example, his usage of the G-natural(the sus4) in bar 5 of the interlude.Robben Ford
    As the first [A] section begins, Robben begins by placing some degree of emphasis on the 9th(F#) of the Em7(9) chord. However, what is really crucial here is that, even though Em is the ii-chord of D major, for some reason E Dorian does not always work. This is because the 6th degree(C#) can sound strange as you head towards the Am7 chord, in this case, it is really more like a iv-chord. And of course, it contains C-natural!!! So, you will notice that, in the long descending line, in bar 2, Robben avoids both C# and C-natural. But, he does resolve to a beautiful sounding C-natural on beat 1 of bar 3 as the Am7 arrives. In these first 4 bars, you hear expressive bends in bar 2, the F# up to G-natural; and in bar 4, the blues lick over Am7. Over the years, I have had any number of students who were and are Robben Ford fans. These same students have gone so far as to attend Robben's clinics in various locales. They all recount similar stories about how Robben downplays his knowledge of sophisticated harmony. Well, whatever his theoretical knowledge may or may not be, the end product comes from the fact that he can hear what the right scale is, and he then chooses beautiful and expressive notes. You put that together with his great sound and his knowledge of the blues, the rest is easy!!! In bars 5 and 6 of these [A] sections, you have two very sophisticated chord sounds. There is no simple modal answer to either. In bar 5, you are greeted by an F7(9b5) sonority. The correct scale based upon the root would be the F Lydian b7 scale, but to my way of thinking, this is the same as: C melodic minor(C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B). As you can see, the first time it arrives, the notes Robben plays are consistent with this scale. And, it's nice that he avoids making a 'big deal' out of the b5(B-natural). Some players tend to overdo that, to WAY overdo it!!!. In bar 6, one whole-step down, an Eb7(9b5) chord arrives. The correct scale, based upon the root, would be Eb Lydian b7 scale. Again, I relate to this as: Bb melodic minor(Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, A). Over this chord, Robben plays another nice 1/2-step bend from C-natural up to Db(with some personalized ornamentations), but this time, he does pass by the b5(A-natural) on his way to the resolution to Dmaj7(9). Though one has lots of improvising options over a major 7th chord, Robben chooses to employ more of a scale-type approach, and the inclusion of a G#, the #4, adds the Lydian flavor to this moment.
    In [A2], Robben's approach to the Em7(9) chord is consistent. Again, he vaults into his upper-register with another hammer-on to that high F#, and then a slide up to his high 'A'. As the line descends, you should again, notice that he avoids both C# and C-natural. Bar 2 of this 8-bar section is also filled with his very idiosyncratic blues/R&B-laced mannerisms. The configurations in beat 3, to these ears, is more related to R&B guitar phrasing, especially the little 'gliss' down from B-natural to A-natural! In bar 3, he uses a very beautiful and expressive sounding Am9 arpeggio to vault into a bent note into his B-natural. It is a nice touch that as bar 4 ends, he inserts an F-natural to anticipate the coming chord of F7(9b5). This time, in bar 5, over that chord, he almost uses a very typical Jazz guitar mannerism over 9b5 chord sounds, but, Robben's true character does come out. A Jazz player would have probably played, descending, D-natural to B-natural, to G-natural and then to Eb! But Robben chooses to play out of a G-arpeggio which uses a D-natural. To conclude the line, he evens plays a much more bluesy nuance with the C-natural going down to B-natural. As he did in the prior [A] section, over the Eb7(9b5), he places more emphasis on the b5, the 'A'-natural. As this very brief little solo concludes, the phrasing becomes even more deeply rooted in the triplets of the shuffle, and Robben employs a nice half-step bend up to a G-natural over the Dmaj7(9). It should be noted that this is something that a blues player would do more often than a pure Jazz player! He ends his solo with a nice bend up to a G-natural(9th) over the first chord of letter [B] which is an Fmaj7(9). It is a beautiful choice of notes.
    As I really do enjoy my private teaching as well as going out and doing various clinics, seminars, and master classes, I am constantly looking for ways to maintain the interest of players who are coming to the world of more sophisticated improvisation via Rock; Blues; Pop; R&B; and Fusion. The blues is always the area of which one should never lose sight. Often, far too many 'pure' Jazz players seem to have so very little of 'the blues' in their playing. Players who served many years working in the great organ trio groups, players like: Wes Montgomery; Grant Green; George Benson; and Pat Martino; and younger players like Peter Bernstein never lose sight of these roots. But, many younger players, coming from other genres pay little or no attention to these fine players, so I sometimes have to find a bridge with which to engage them. A player like Robben Ford makes the perfect 'bridge' to bring them in. And so, it is in this spirit that we offer this great little solo in hopes that it will stimulate some of you to now examine some of the other improvisations which have been offered here at KORNER 1.
    The one small complaint I have with this track, and Robben's place within it, is that the reverb, the ambience, which surrounds his sound makes the performance sound like it was, in fact, an overdub. On a rather large scale production like this, many different musicians and guest musicians on each track, financial constraints make overdubbing a necessity. So, though I'm only guessing, there could be a couple of reasons for this sonic perception of mine. [1] If, for some reason, Robben decided to record with his own amp/system reverb on. In almost all situations, even when you don't trust the engineer, this is asking for trouble because once it goes to tape[or into the computer], you can never remove it! Or [2], and this is an even worse possibility, the engineer and/or production team, decided to give the guitar a special sonic treatment and gave it its own reverb, one which was totally different from that which surrounds the other instruments. This is never a good thing, in my view, because it is a certainty that the instrument will then sound like an overdub. The idea in 'mixing' is to create a 'blend' of all the instruments, and, no matter what the recording process truly was, the track should sound as though everyone was playing in the same room and at the same time!!! Robben, who has recorded many, many times, knows well that part of the job, when overdubbing, is to make sound as though you were there. What he played, in that respect, sounds perfect. But, the sonic blend that was created in mixing, to these ears, tends to negate that. It's a detail that most listeners mercifully do not pay any attention to. And that is probably for the best!
    On a brief historical note, I was trying to remember just when I first heard and met Robben Ford, and I had to go deep into my collection of Datebooks, because I remembered meeting him in Boston during the mid-'70s. My guess was pretty much correct. At that time, we were doing our first 'live' gigs as the Brecker Bros. Band which then included, in addition to Mike & Randy: David Sanborn; Don Grolnick; Buzzy Feiten [Yes, the two of us were playing together a lot back then!]; Will Lee; and Chris Parker. On the weekend of May 2nd-4th, 1975, we were playing at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, and opposite us, playing in Paul's Mall was Tom Scott and the L.A. Express [w/ Larry Nash; Max Bennett and John Guerin]. The band also featured a very young Robben Ford on guitar. I believe this was not so long after all the incredible press Robben had received after doing some touring with George Harrison. I remember that Tom's band packed the club, which was considerably larger than the Workshop, and I don't believe that we did quite as well. My recollections, upon hearing Robben, were that he really sounded great, but after each phrase, he seemed to just slide down the strings with his left-hand. I think that this mannerism has long since disappeared. I also remember that he and his then girlfriend were draped all over each other, and it was a bit hard to really have a conversation with him. Perhaps this was because he was traveling in very different and unfamiliar musical company? I don't know. I remember that she seemed to be a typically lovely looking Northern California type of girl, with flowing velvet dresses, capes, and other accoutrements aligned with those waning "Hippie" years. It's hard to believe that all this took place over 31 years ago!

[Photo of Robben Ford by: Henry Diltz]

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