One of the most exciting truths in the jazz world is that within every top sideman is a solo artist itching to emerge from the shadows and into the forefront. Longtime McCoy Tyner saxophonist Joe Ford's stunning and diverse Bluemoon debut, Today's Nights, proves that such an evolution is more than worth the years of life and musical experience that go into it.
The straight ahead-oriented collection showcases Ford's masterful melodic and improvisational skills on both soprano and tenor saxes, adding touches of contemporary jazz and blues to what is truly a "players album," emphasizing the inspired interaction between Ford and such long-term associates as bassist Charles Fambrough (who also co-produced), Tonight Show pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummers Jeff "lain" Watts and Darrell Brown.
'When Charles helped open the avenues for my own project, I decided it would be best to simply play the things I like the most, picking music that would provide a glimpse of my life," Ford says. "All the styles I grew up with and have played professionally -- funk, gospel, classical, avante garde and jazz -- are within me, and now have an opportunity to come out. Though I've been playing professionally for many years, all the tunes are brand new, providing a current overview of what I'm about the present time."
Ford eases into Today's Nights with the cool, breezy title track, on which his inventive soprano melodicism fronts the swinging trio of Kirkland, Fambrough and Watts. He switches to alto on the percussive, driving "Interior Motive," which features wild improvisation over Kirkland's funky piano foundation. The lush "Amy's Waltz" showcases Ford's tender side, with Kirkland providing a pretty solo spot as well as tasteful synth orchestral colors.
The whimsical "Buffalo Chips" starts out as a furious ensemble improvisation (highlighted by Watts' skin playing) before evolving into a punchy, rhythmic jazz piece. Ford chose Herbie Hancock's percussive contemporary standard "Chemical Residue" due to its presentation of "different possibilities," which include Vince Evans adding spacey synth textures to the bright, percussive mix. "Blues Muse," written the day it was recorded, is a methodical, simmering gem in the classic blues style, featuring Ford's flowing alto over Kirkland's elegant funk.
"My Life With You" is a sweet, romantic soprano/acoustic piano duet with Kirkland, while "Always Thinking of You" heightens the tempo slightly for a silky, soulful and moody Quiet Storm effect. Today's Nights closes with a bang on "Izit," as Ford, Fambrough and guest drummer Nasai Abady cook up a groove that stretches the boundaries of most conventional jazz lmprov ensemble action. As with most of the pieces, "lilt" is marked by magnificent soloing by each member around the melody.
Buffalo, N.Y., born and raised, Ford grew up in a musical household and was singing with his mother and aunts in a family choir by age 5. Recognizing his musical aptitude early on, his family encouraged him to begin piano lessons at 7, and Ford switched naturally to sax when he was 11.
"I liked any improvised music," Ford recalls, "anything rhythmic, jazzy or with gospel influences. My aunt played in a local big band and invited local musicians over for jam sessions aH the time."
While in high school and later attending Central State University in Ohio as a music major, he played in a wide variety of campus jazz groups and local funk bands, doing everything from clubs to school dances and finding that he didn't discriminate between styles. I did and still do play the same way, whether it's jazz, soul or pop.
After college, he returned to Buffalo and began teaching music at the junior high level, acting as band and chorus director for four years while still seeking outside gigs. He played in various local groups and house bands, where he backed up such touring acts as The Miracles. Ironically, when he stopped teaching and started to tour with a Top 40 band, he was hired as a pianist. He then founded Birthright, a locally popular Coltrane/Miles-influenced jazz band which released two albums. He also played with the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble, a group featuring future members of Spyro Gyra.
Ford first met the legendary pianist Mccoy Tyner while still in high school, when Ford and his friends would bring their own equipment to the clubs Tyner played. After college, Birthright opened a few shows for Tyner, and Ford sat in with him. Tyner liked Ford's original music, and several years later, when his old sax player left, he hired Ford. The rest - as they say - is history, as Ford has played on and off with Tyner since 1975. Through 1981, Ford was a member of Tyner's sextet and, after a several-year layoff (during which Ford freelanced in New York City and also returned to teaching woodwinds), joined Tyner's newly-formed big band in 1985.
In addition to touring, Ford also appeared on such classic Tyner albums as Focal Point, Inner Voices, The Greeting, Horizon, and Thirteenth House. Among his other credits are working with Jerry Gonzalez' Fort Apache Band, appearing on Charles Fambrough's #1 jazz radio release The Proper Angle and on albums by Idris Muhamed and Sahib Sarbib.
Working with Tyner, however, has given Ford his greatest education and fulfillment. "I've enjoyed working with McCoy. Like Coltrane, he had much to do with the development of a style and jazz concept. Nobody can play like him, and it was an honor to be part of his band for so long. A musician rarely has a chance to play alongside a true innovator of the form."
While Tyner has certainly been an influence on Ford's musical development, Ford Insists that "while I like the style of jazz he plays, I didn't want Today's Nights to be like a Mccoy Tyner album. People who haven't seen me as a leader will be surprised at the difference. My own music isn't just about hooks and gratuitous soloing. It has a wide variety of styles, and the quality of the songs and the great musicianship stand out. I hope it encourages people to Increase their listening palettes."