Two weeks from today the Yellowjackets are set to release their 20th or so proper album, Timeline, and we'll gonna give you the lowdown on it soon. But as the 'Jackets celebrate thirty years of making records, it might be a good time to cast a gaze back on the record where one of jazz fusion's most successful and longest running concerns got its start. That's right, the Yellowjackets was born out of the sessions for someone else's record from the late seventies, and one that-at least at the time-didn't make much of a ripple. But given the later success of the record's main protagonists, it's high time for a reassessment.
That record is Robben Ford's 1979 release, The Inside Story. By this time Ford had already recorded a couple of of records under his own name, but this one, the only one he made between 1976 and 1988, established him as a force in both fusion jazz and blues worlds. For the session, produced by Stax legend Steve Cropper, a trio of young, relative unknowns were recruited for his rhythm section: keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Ricky Lawson. The three found instant rapport that they quickly made into their own band-The Yellowjackets-and a couple of years later they snagged a Warner Brothers contract and their first album followed in 1981 (with Ford on board as an unofficial fourth member). But that's another story. The Inside Story has its tale to tell, and it's a story about the music.
Ford, as we noted before with plenty of examples here, is an electric guitarist of the highest order. His lines are clean, explosive and never seem to run out of ideas. Wielding a Gibson 335 at the time and playing fusion with heaping helpings of blues and rock, it's easy to put this record alongside Larry Carlton first post-Crusaders solo records from the same time period. I'm not going to lie, there's not that much that separates this album from Carlton's late 70's output, but where Carlton's tone was often a tad jazzier and his licks the very pinnacle of tastiness, Ford matches him in sheer technique and brings out a cleaner tone and more direct rock phrasing. It really comes down to a fine matter of taste, or mood.
That powerful phrasing ability of Ford's is magnificently displayed on the opening track, Magic Sam," which though the title suggests the blues of its namesake, is a funk-rock fusion gem. A memorably righteous unison line with Ferrante's synth forms the theme, and then Ford soon dives into his solo. It's a perfectly constructed piece of rock guitar solo, dripping with blues and enunciated with conviction, it ranks as one of the better electric rock guitar improvisations I've heard, ever.
For a long time, I've listened to this song and discarded the rest of the album since it's such a standout, but later discovered there's actually very little that justifies skipping over. For The One I Love," slows down to mid-tempo, but possesses a melody that is almost as sophisticated as Steely Dan's, with Ford again lifting the song to another plane with his solo. There's No One Else" is a simmering set of slowed down funk that anticipates the all-instrumental attitude of Tiger Walk nearly twenty years later. The album closes nearly as strong as it opens, with the funky number Tee Time For Eric," with propulsive rhythms provided by Ferrante's piano and Ford's own, way underrated rhythm guitar work. Haslip, who bass would become much more prominent under the Yellowjackets, nonetheless supplies a slippery groove underneath that hints at the virtuosity he'd later become known for.
Ford didn't make this an all-fusion album, though. He recorded a couple of blues tracks for the album, North Carolina" and Need Somebody," both on which he sings, too. Even this early on, Ford struggled with reconciling his love for the blues with his proficiency in rock-jazz, and though these songs are competent-especially where Ford's lays down his magical licks-they still are a bit out of place on this record. These are the cuts I'd still pass on today but I wouldn't skip over these tracks on a Ford blues record.
Under Cropper's supervision, this crack crew made a crisp, well-executed set of fusion fare that showed little sign that the genre was running out of gas. As the launching pad for one of the few fusion bands of note in the decade that followed, under the leadership of one of fusion's finest plectrists, The Inside Story deserves a few of the kudos it's been missing over all these years.