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That wild and joyful jazz we hear coming from Rit's House, Lee Ritenour's latest recording for GRP, is a full-on celebration of one of the most exciting and enduring legendary guitarists in contemporary music. Our host, long known in hip musical circles and by fans worldwide as "Captain Fingers," starts jamming with several of L.A.'s most groove intensive rhythm sections. Splashes of modern jazz/funk intensity and world beat exotica abound amidst a cool 60s-70s soul jazz vibe, evoking warm, sweet musical memories from Ritenour's treasured career, which meets 2002 at full creative force.
The new music brings some of the proverbial old snapshots to life. In one, 16 year old Rit is playing his first session with The Mama's & The Papas, two years later, he's backing Tony Bennett and Lena Horne at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Later, there are nearly 2,000 pop and jazz sessions with legends who only need one name (Barbra, Quincy, Dizzy, B.B., Jaco). Along the way, he receives 17 Grammy nominations and one win for Harlequin, his 1986 collaboration with Dave Grusin. In 2000, he and Grusin returned to their classical roots with Two Worlds, which remained on Billboard's classical charts for 51 weeks.
Twenty six years after releasing his solo debut First Course, Ritenour is celebrating his 30th recording, which includes these Grusin projects, four 1990s projects with contemporary jazz supergroup Fourplay and two all-star "Twist Of" projects paying homage to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Bob Marley. During that span, he's also tallied 150 original recorded compositions, produced numerous projects for other artists, and co-founded his own label, i.e. music.
Over the course of Rit's milestone thirty recordings, (including 1997's Alive in L.A., the first time he chronicled his live performances), he has earned several gold albums, numerous #1 spots in guitar polls and the prestigious "Alumnus of the Year" award from USC. Since the 70s, Rit has been a huge presence in a cross-section of radio genres. In 1981, he scored the pop 15 hit "Is It You," featuring vocalist Eric Tagg, which has also become a smooth jazz radio classic. Most recently, "Get Up Stand Up," the first single from the A Twist of Marley recording, was the #1 Radio & Records NAC airplay single of 2001.
In the 90s, he was a founding member of Fourplay, the most successful band in contemporary jazz, with keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason. The first Fourplay album in 1991 spent an unprecedented 33 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart, while their Grammy-nominated follow-up, Between the Sheets, captured the top slot on the Billboard, R&R, Gavin and NAC charts on its way to a gold sales certification. In addition to producing his own recordings, Ritenour has produced projects for such artists as Eric Marienthal, Phil Perry and Vesta, which were released on his i.e. music label, along with A Twist of Jobim. Additional production credits include Patti Austin, Will Downing and most recently, A Twist of Marley.
It's been more than an incredible three decades, but the fresh, hip and swinging energy of Rit's House affirms that in many ways, the party's just getting started. "It's always seemed to me that the industry has created too much of a division between straight-ahead acoustic jazz and the funky fusion I also love," says Ritenour. "The idea behind Rit's House is creating a collective expression of both of these types of music, reconciling the two while incorporating some of the Brazilian styles I've also enjoyed exploring. There's a vintage, classic old school soul-jazz approach which captures my influences and many of my unique experiences since 1976.
"It was important that I played a lot of guitar and bring out some of the things I do best," he adds. "That means a lot of live playing, and a focus on things like melody, rhythm and strong soloing. Those are my fortes that I wasn't able to explore enough of on last year's A Twist of Marley, which was more of a huge production that involved a great deal of overdubbing. My other goal was gathering a true wish list of some of the best players I have ever been privileged to work with, along with a few other new collaborators who I've always admired, like (Hammond B-3 organist) Joey DeFrancesco (the brassy, locomotive, muted guitar driven "78th and 3rd") and Michael McDonald ("Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic").
"Taking a jazz approach and concentrating on live playing, I wanted to use several different rhythm sections and vintage instruments and amps to create a timeless sound that's geared more around musicality and vibe than sonic perfection. The key was to write with specific rhythm sections in mind, yet leave open spaces for soloing. I made a very purposeful choice to record the entire album in 24 track analog SR Dolby. The depth of sound was important to me. I did some of the tracks at Sunset Sound's Studio Three, where I made some of my first recordings."
The all-star cast is expansive, but Ritenour breaks it down into that handful of core rhythm sections he chose very specifically to create certain moods and percussive flow.
The first rhythm section features Marcus Miller on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
Their tracks include the opener, "Module 105" (named for the beats per minute), a laid back, mystical retro blues with George Duke on Fender Rhodes and Dan Higgins' flute harmony; and "Mizrab," an exotic, soundscape heavy soul-jazz-funk explosion written by the late Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, who once recommended a young Rit to fill in for him behind Tony Bennett and Lena Horne.
The versatile Colaiuta hits the skins with bassist Melvin Davis on the title track, whose moods range from brooding (with John Beasley's Rhodes) to brassy and swinging (courtesy of the Jerry Hey trumpets and Higgins on tenor sax); "Condor," an easy funk twist on an old Dave Grusin piece (from the score of "Three Days of the Condor") led by Rit and saxman Ernie Watts; and "O'Linda," named for a town in Brazil and featuring Indian flutes (Higgins), a spacious samba feeling and even a touch of the Irish. Davis then blends with drummer Will Kennedy on the smoky, subtle blues of "A Little Dolphin Dreamin', inspired by an earlier Rit piece "Dolphin Dreams," and featuring Beasley on B-3 and acoustic piano and Watts on tenor.
Kennedy works with acoustic bassist Dave Carpenter on the melancholy, beatnik jazz tune "13," a late 60s Gary McFarland composition originally recorded by Wes Montgomery (whom Rit paid homage to on 1992's WesBound); and an atmospheric reworking of Sting's classic Police hit "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," with deep, soulful vocals by Michael McDonald. Carpenter creates a straight ahead jazz foundation with The Alan Pasqua Trio (Pasqua on piano, Peter Erskine on drums) on the final three tracks: the Montgomery inspired, closing time tune "Night Owl"; "Party Time," a playful new arrangement of a Lee Morgan classic featuring Jerry Hey; and the elegant closer, "Just Listen."
Growing up in L.A. in the 60's, Ritenour received a rich cross section of exposure to the greats of the time in both jazz and rock-Montgomery, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Howard Roberts (he took lessons from Pass and Roberts) on the jazz side, and The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton on the rock. Both he and Larry Carlton (who recorded the historic Larry & Lee for GRP in 1995) studied with the same classical guitar teacher in the late 60's before rising to prominence playing the same model, a Gibson 335.
"From the time I was 12 years old and my dad would take me to Hollywood's Guitar Center, I wanted to play both jazz and rock like crazy.fusion was for me, the best of both worlds," he says. "Yet in the end, I opted for the more sophisticated sounds of jazz and its harmonies, rhythms and melodies. That need to explore led me to Brazilian music, which became a major part of my life as well. I was classically trained. I had a
lot of jazz studies and devoured rock and roll and pop. And what I loved about records was not only the soloist on the record, but the orchestral arrangements as well. Even if
I was listening to Miles Davis or Wes Montgomery, I was always attracted to the whole package."
"I'm really grateful for the longevity I've had, and my ability to always focus on the creativity even when the business end of things gets frustrating," says Ritenour. Rit's House is a diverse album, but I think the average listener is less interested in defining what sub-genre I'm tackling than the truer question of 'Is this good jazz?' In the 70s, I would jam at The Baked Potato in North Hollywood with guys like David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Jr., Larry Carlton and Tom Scott, all jazz players finding our way into a fusion of more melodic and rhythmic jazz and R&B. This kind of recording captures that exact kind of fun. Playing in the studio with all the guys on this record reminded me of those free-spirited days. It was as enjoyable an experience as making my first album 26 years ago. That's a good barometer of the enthusiasm I still have for making the music I love."