They both played with Miles Davis, Ford rather more briefly than Bill Evans, who was a fixture in the early to mid-80s. Tonight, musical references aside, Evans’ enduring trademark headband was a reminder of those years, now possibly retaining less hair.
This was the first set of three nights of two sets a night at Ronnie’s for the duo’s “Blues, Miles and Beyond”, which turned out to be a fair description of the goods. The leaders were joined by Jonny Henderson (Hammond organ) and Evan Jenkins (drums).
The “beyond” was embodied in part in the inclusion of illuminating and amusing announcements, a marked contrast to the taciturn presentations of a typical Miles gig, but the first tune went unnamed. It was a funky groove that had Ford playing his Les Paul through some sort of processor, perhaps a pitch shifter, that gave his guitar the sound of the electro-vibe on his solo. This piece, and chromatic solos from him and Evans, took us straight into the jazz element of their set.
A slow, modal rocker, Sentimental Mode, followed, taken from the forthcoming album Common Ground. Ford told us they had worked out, presumably after composition, that the mode in question was Aeolian. In solo, the electro-vibe was gone, replaced by a bluesy outing with bends, some octaves and a some chromatic filigrees. Evans was on soprano for these first two pieces, his dry sound a slightly uneven contrast to Ford’s, which was well doused in reverb and/or delay, but he picked up the tenor for the dark, funky third piece, fluent at nipping in and out of key. Among his peers he deserves full marks for never (as far as I know) succumbing to post-80s jazz fundamentalism and producing a standards album.
The blues proper, and quite a bit before Miles, entered with Charles Brown’s Black Night, no relation to Deep Purple’s nocturne of the same name, which Ford sang. He introduced a little diminished scale – his trademark – into an otherwise Chicago-style blues solo. Evans, still on tenor, reached deep between the diatonics to pull out some plums.
Then we had Evans’ piece Big Mama (from the 2019 album The Sun Room), a swampy modal groove on a Bo Diddley beat on which the rhythm section effectively dropped down a notch to create contour and allow Evans to build up a powerful solo.
The following Metal Man, from Ford’s pen, didn’t supply the heavy rock its title might suggest – the other side of Black Night perhaps – but it was up and beaty, with a pleasingly ambiguous chromaticism. After it, Evans’ description of a trip to the local store from his new Nashville home following years in NY was well done. The typical shopper, he tells us, will ask for bread, milk, a Smith & Wesson 45 and ammo; the shopkeeper will remain unfazed until he asks for a bottle of vodka.
With Cool Eddie, a bluesy modal groove from Evans presumably inspired by Eddie Harris, Ford returned to the electro-vibe sound, which again led him into more chromatic territory. The set closed with Passaic (as in NJ) from The Sun Room, which sported an intriguingly labyrinthine theme over a shuffling Killer Joe type groove and drew good jazz solos all round.
Miles might not have explicitly been there – there were no Miles tunes, in contrast to Scott Henderson’s All Blues the night before – but little modern jazz of the electric variety has escaped his stamp and the echoes were perceptible.
Robben Ford & Bill Evans in ‘Blues, Miles and Beyond’ at Ronnie Scott’s, 5.30pm house, 10 March 2022