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Buy this CDIf you are a long time Lee Ritenour fan, the first notes of the opening track, the title cut of this CD, will perk your ears up. It's a Rit-riff that sounds like it came straight from one of those classic GRP CDs he and Dave Grusin did in the late 80s. It is inspired, not imitative. The launching point for innovative and original set of songs that are loaded with trademark Ritenour arrangements and solos. Inspired by musicians he discovered during a tour in South Africa he has added another layer of influences to a scope that was already wide. What is impressive is the way he has put elements of all of them on Smoke'n'Mirrors and created a stylistically eclectic collection of songs that flow together seamlessly. Over the course of these 14 songs he delves into acoustic African rhythms, Brazilian ballads, traditional jazz, fusion, reinvented pop hits, blues-rock, and pre-smooth contemporary jazz. The effect is never jarring; it just lures you in and reminds you of how much has been missing since the trend toward playing it safe took hold.

Ritenour said that the title refers to the elements of magic and serendipity that were present during the process of creating and recording the album. It's hard not to intuitively "get" this spirit of joyous exploration or the chemistry between the people playing the music. The chemistry comes from the group of musicians he has gathered. Patrice Rushen, Dave Grusin, Melvin Davis, Vinnie Colaiuta, Abraham Laboriel, and Alex Acuna go back to his earliest solo albums. They are joined by Sheila E., Brian Bromberg, Paulinho Da Costa, John Pattituci, and Oscar Seaton and Ritenour's son Wesley, who makes his debut on drums. There is also an international presence: Richard Bona, the brilliant African bassist/vocalist who was featured in Pat Metheny's "Speaking of Now" tour, Daniel Jobim - vocalist, keyboard player and grandson of Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Indian tabla player Satma Ramgotra. The serendipity started when he turned on the TV late at night while he was in South Africa and saw music videos of Zamajobe, a popular new vocalist there who mixes pop and R&B with more traditional African styles. He was able to record several tracks with her and her guitarist Erik Pilani Paliani including the traditional call-and-response "Memeza." Ritenour extended the song, adding an additional guitar part over the sparse vocal/guitar/percussion driven arrangement.

Although there are no other songs exactly like it on the CD, "Memeza" may be its thematic heart. There are traces of these rhythms and textures throughout, most notably on "Capetown" and "Water's Edge," which have Ritenour's acoustic guitar backed with only bass, drums and percussion. "Township" starts in a similar mode but as electric guitar and sax are layered in it starts to sound like a continuation of those wonderful world-flavored songs on his late 80s CDs. The thread to that era is most conspicuous in his version of Dave Grusin's "Southwest Passage," which originally appeared on Grusin's Migration CD in 1987. There is beauty in complexity here. Grusin's eloquent, lyrical piano and Ritenour’s acoustic guitar wrapped around a song full of rapid-fire tempo changes and textural shifts. Serendipity occurred again with "Blue Days." He was looking for a contemporary Brazilian song to fill out the album and ran into Daniel Jobim at a restaurant. Jobim sent him this lovely, haunting ballad. Jobim arranged this version, a duet with Brazilian vocalist Joyce. They both sing with such emotion and clarity that you don't need to know the language to understand the song.

Into this melting pot also go four covers: two jazz songs that are not very well known and two pop/R&B songs that are extremely familiar. Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo's "Spellbinder" is close to straight-ahead but Brian Bromberg’s driving bass and the tablas and bongos under Ritenour’s sneaky lead shape-shift it into a different realm. Freddie Hubbard's "Povo" gets similar treatment. Patrice Rushen's Fender Rhodes solo will stop you in your tracks. She just goes off! The chordings are distinctly mid-70s fusion but the arrangement isn't retro at all. Ritenour’s gift for creating jazzed up arrangements of popular songs was showcased on the "Twist Of" projects, but his reinvention of "Lovely Day" and "Forget Me Not's" takes it one step further. He has kept the heart of these songs but turned them into something so fresh that even someone who has heard them almost daily for 20 years will hear them from a new perspective. Zamajobe's gift is that she is such a natural, unaffected singer. She doesn't over sing but she doesn't go into the icy monotone that the chill trend has made so fashionable. Rushen and Ritenour even found a little melody line that is as catchy as the double clap in the original version of "Forget Me Nots." Both these songs wrap up with Zamajobe's African scatting/vocalese. Ritenour described it as LA meets Brazil meets South Africa. It's quite a fun trip! Then Ritenour goes where everyone else seems to be scared to tread - he rocks. "Motherland" is a percussive play-it-loud funk-tinged rocker that just keeps on building in intensity. "4 1/2 Storms" starts where "Motherland" leaves off with Bona and Ritenour playing fast and furious then Bona tears into a bass'n'scat passage. It fades into a bass and conga breakdown that sheds the density but keeps the momentum and sets you up to go straight into the title track on replay and discover even more facets of the musicianship on this CD.

If you go back and listen to Color Rit, Festival, or Grusin's Migration they sound just as contemporary now as they did then. Smoke'n'Mirrors is equally timeless. It's a stunning musical journey that explores a lot of territory but never goes off track.

- Shannon West

CD Reviews return to home page interviews CD Reviews Concert Reviews Perspectives - SmoothViews State of Mind Retrospectives - A Look Back at a Favorite CD On The Side - The Sidemen of Smooth Jazz On the Lighter Side - A Little Humor News - What's New in Smooth Jazz Links - A Guide to Smooth Jazz on the Web Contact Us About Us Website Design by Visible Image, LLC