Interviewed by Shannon West
Lee Ritenour explores new territory, both geographic and musical,
while bringing back the contemporary jazz spirit of those
classic GRP albums. Less than a minute into the title track,
it was obvious that there was something very special going
on and I had to try to get a chance to talk to him about this
CD. As luck would have it he was doing interviews, so I found
myself on the phone with one of the guys I've been listening
to since the beginning. After the geeked out gushy "Omigod
I can't believe I'm talking to you" moment, we were off
and running. He is so excited about this project and he talked
about his music from both a personal and technical perspective.
The best way to read this would definitely be with Smoke'N'Mirrors
playing loud. He's taken another creative leap forward and
given us something completely original and quite stunning.
SV: The new CD is called Smoke’N’Mirrors
and some of the advance material said that the title had several
levels of meaning for you.
LR: It does. First I wanted an original,
fresh title because I felt like the album deserved it. Counting
the “Best of’s” and collaborations with
Fourplay, Dave Grusin and all, I'm up to almost 40 albums
now. The album had a very magical quality when I was working
on it. It also took a while. It was spread out over eight
months. I was very enthusiastic about recording the album
from the beginning all the way to the end. In fact, I was
sorry to see it finish, and that doesn’t happen very
often. I knew I was onto something good with the concept I
was going after. It was just such a fun record to work on
and several things happened in the process of making the album
that had magical moments attached. Smoke and Mirrors is a
phrase that’s most commonly used with magicians, so
I felt it was appropriate. I felt like it also had sort of
a secondary political meaning. Not just as a reflection on
our government today, but as a reflection on so many things
that are in front of us that appear to be one way, but are
really another way. I see this in terms of all walks of life,
whether it's in corporate America or political institutions
or just our basic structure. Not just in this country either.
I think it's worldwide. It's hard to get to the real source
of the best things in life. As great as technology is today,
we have our kids who are more comfortable IM’ing each
other than getting together for a play date. Smoke’N’Mirrors
is kind of this veneer that's over our lives. You have to
really fight through it to get to the real stuff, and I think
the album represented getting back to the real stuff for me.
SV: I think it does too and it's going to represent
that for the people who hear it. You have a history of
exploring world music and introducing influential international
artists to contemporary jazz audiences. You worked with a lot
of Brazilian musicians and now you are exploring African music
and feature some impressive African musicians on the CD. How
did that happen?
LR: It's sort of been a favorite genre of mine. I’ve
been listening to different artists from down there. I mentioned
Fela Kuti, who is a very inspirational man for me. He's almost
like the Bob Marley of his generation from Africa. Even Paul
Simon''s two albums that he did -Rhythm of the
Saints and Graceland
- were very inspirational for me in the ways he interweaved
African type musical elements into his pop music. What finally
tipped the scales was playing down there for the first time
last year. I had gotten a lot of fan letters and emails about
coming down there, but until I got down there I didn't know
that the fans were that well versed in my music. They were
literally singing along in Johannesburg and Capetown. It was
a terrific feeling! While I was down there one more magical
kind of thing happened. One night I turned on the TV when
I couldn't sleep from the jet lag and there was this singer
named Zamajobe. It turns out she was a new artist, the new
artist of the year there, and she had a big hit record. She
sang in English and in African dialects. When she was singing
in English, she sounded like an American R&B singer, something
like a modern Sade. When she started adding these African
elements, there was a whole other element that came into her
performance that really impressed me. It was something like
four in the morning when I saw her. I wrote her name down,
went back to sleep and didn't get in touch with her because
there was no time. When I came back to work on the record,
we got in touch with her record company and her producer.
She's on three songs on the album and the bonus track on iTunes
and we did everything over the internet. I have never met
her, so it's an amazing use of technology that people can
be connected with a musical or artistic vision this way and
not necessarily have to be in the same room.
SV: This is where technology opens doors that
connect us instead of isolating us. It's amazing that you
could put together a track like “Memeza” that
is so focused on her African sound and fits so beautifully
into the context of this album that way.
LR: That was originally a very short track
on her album that was a hit in South Africa. I asked
her to send me the elements of that song because I might want
to do something with it. I elongated the song, added my guitars
to it and the African guitarist that is on that track is her
producer, Erik Pilani. Not only did I get her talent but I
got him. Then my son, Wesley, ended up playing a riff on drums
at the end, so that was very cool.
SV: He's on several of the songs too.
LR: He's on a couple. He plays on the bonus
track that's on the Japan release and he co-wrote a song called "Stone
Cool" where he wrote the melody and I fleshed it out.
He loves blues melodies whether they are jazz or authentic
SV: I was listening to some of your older
stuff and wishing we had more music now that sounded like
"Dolphin Dreams." Then I put this one on and hear
"Motherland" and there it is! The guitar on the
end is something that a lot of us have really missed. You're
using a lot of different styles of music and the whole project
is still really cohesive.
LR: I think that's one of the things I was
most excited about. One of the aspects of the title of the
album is the magical aspect of smoke and mirrors. One thing
that was very magical about making this record was that I could
actually pull out a rock fused funky guitar part or a rhythm
guitar part that was almost like a funkster part. I could pull
out a beautiful jazz guitar sound or my classical guitar or
my steel string acoustic or these other guitars that I use
to orchestrate parts and they all worked beautifully together.
For me that was a very magical element of the record.
SV: Is that something you haven't been doing as
much in your previous CDs?
LR: Well, the direction of a CD allows for
a certain kind of guitar sound as far as where I'm coming from.
For instance, if I'm doing almost a straight-ahead jazz album
like Wes Bound I'm pretty much going
to use the jazz guitar for the whole album because that's the
flavor of the record. I think I used up to a dozen guitars
on this record. It’s very unusual to be able to remain
cohesive and pull all these sounds together without being all
over the map.
SV: The multiple guitars really
stand out in "Motherland" and "4 ½ Storms."
LR: Even though there are some great keyboard
players on the album, there are a number of songs with no
keyboard on them and the backing is all guitar oriented. This
is first time I've ever done this actually. "4 ½
Storms" is a perfect example, where I'm playing the harmonies
and inside parts along with the melodic parts and the solo
parts, and using different kinds of textures for that orchestration.
It’s the same with "Capetown." I used a baritone
guitar with a very unusual tuning that became the body of
the composition, while the classical guitar is on top of it
with the main rhythm part.
SV: That was one of the songs that had a real
South African feel to it.
LR: We came up with a rhythm track based on
a great African artist, Fela Kuti, then I wrote the tune around
SV: What inspired you to record
LR: "Southwest Passage" was written by
Dave Grusin. It goes back to one of his earlier records where
he used some Brazilian influences and world flavors. It's
such a great tune and I knew Dave was going to come out to
record a couple of other songs with me. I needed another Brazilian
type tune and this one has a specific kind of groove called
a baiao. We had a great band with Vinnie Colaiuta,
John Patitucci, Alex Acuna, Paulinho Da Costa, Dave and myself.
It’s not an easy song to play. It took us a while in
the studio to get that groove.
SV: You dug up some classic jazz
songs that aren't standard fare, too, with "Spellbinder"
LR: Besides a lot of original compositions
there were several things I felt I wanted to cover. “Spellbinder”
was an interesting one because it was written by a great jazz
guitar player who is not terribly known to the masses, especially
in this decade. Gabor Szabo is a very talented crossover guitarist
from the seventies. He's from Hungary so again it had a world
music element to it and to top that I added the IndianTablas.
It was the first time I worked with a Tabla player. Brian
Bromberg is on acoustic bass, so it's a very interesting combination
of percussion; Alex Acuna and the Tabla player, with Brian
Bromberg playing a very percussive acoustic bass and me on
SV: Patrice Rushen just goes
off on “Povo,” the Freddie Hubbard song. Both
those songs have this Weather Report fusionish sound.
LR: The keyboard is just stunning on that tune.
SV: Everybody’s doing covers these days
but your covers don't sound like covers. They sound like Lee
Ritenour songs that somebody else did first. You have taken two
extremely familiar songs and turned them into fresh new music
on this one.
LR: Arranging is the way I put my stamp on
my music as much as my guitar playing. Composing would be
the third element. When I do somebody else’s song, the
arrangement becomes key and I have to feel a strong connection
to the song. With "Lovely Day" I had worked with
Bill Withers live before, I've recorded with him, and I'm
totally a fan of his. He had a relatively short period of
these classic recordings of songs that are up there with Stevie
Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I was looking for another vehicle
to feature Zamajobe and I came up with a kind of groove that
was contemporary with a smooth jazz vibe, but it had a Brazilian
basis for the track. Then she and her guitar player put their
vibe on top of it, so it's kind of like LA meets Brazil meets
South Africa. It's really cool.
SV: The scatting she does at the end of both songs
brings something really interesting too. It's different from
standard jazz scatting.
LR: I twist “Forget Me Nots” and “Lovely
Day” with her right when you wouldn't expect it
SV: Was the title track specifically written to
catch this sound that a lot of your long time fans identify
with you and want to hear?
LR: I think so. There's a little twist to
that song too. It's in a 7/4 meter and it has such a hypnotic
groove that it actually goes over people's heads that it's
actually in another meter. That gave me the freshness and
again there's no keyboardist on it. I added some organ colors
myself, but for the most part its very guitar based and it
became kind of a central song on the record. It really defines
the whole album. Sheila E is playing a really dynamic percussion
part along with Alex Acuna, and Vinnie Colaiuta is smokin'
on the drums. There are three bass parts. I'm actually playing
one of the synth bass parts, Melvin Davis is playing the foundation
and the great bassist from West Africa, Richard Bona, is playing
all the fills.
SV: Is this the first time you've worked with Richard
LR: I worked with him on the Twist
of Marley album. He's such a talent. He travels
the world and kind of lives on the road. He'll go pretty much
anywhere to play the bass.
SV: A lot of us saw him with
Pat Metheny a few years ago. You gave him a blowout solo on
LR: ( laughs). He went crazy.
SV: Here's this song that has a stun fusion guitar
then lures us into him playing the hell out of that bass. We
just don't get music like that outside of live situations very
LR: Yeah. That's why we needed to get back
to some real music making, because too much of the stuff is
sort of manufactured.
SV: What is interesting is that I've gotten 3 CDs
from Peak recently; yours, David Benoit's and the Rippingtons'.
All of you are again playing the music that brought a lot
of us into it in the first place. I don't know if that is
coincidence, serendipity or Smoke'N''Mirrors but it sure
LR: I think all the artists you mentioned
have been around for quite a while. I have a bit longer history
than they do and we all saw the evolution of this music quite
a bit. I think David and Russ are both committed to their instruments
and live music. A lot of young people today don't even get
a chance to hear live bands. You go to the places where you
used to hear bands and it's all DJs. Live music is really the
key to communicating music so even though you want to use technology
and all the advantages of the modern studio and computer to
keep that music jumping off your CD the live sound is important.
That's what I was aiming for with this CD.
SV: The recording process for Overtime was a lot
different wasn't it. How did it compare to this?
LR: Overtime was
a huge endeavor. One of the bigger projects I've done. The
end result was the two day recording. It was a DVD and CD
set that had about three hours of music on it all recorded
in two days live in Los Angeles in high definition. You can
buy that DVD or CD and it seems like a live set, but there
was a lot that went into bringing those musicians in and organizing
that material. That project represented a connection to Smoke'N'Mirrors
because there were a couple of new songs on it but it was
really a retrospective in the sense of being an over time
look at a number of songs from my career. We went back as
far as doing "Captain Fingers" all the way up through
this decade and it was a chance to revisit with some of my
favorite musicians that I've worked with over these 30 years.
By the time I got to Smoke'N'Mirrors,
I knew it was time for some fresh avenues. The inspiration
for this one was building for quite a few years and Overtime
may have had a lot to do with that.
SV: How did you get the idea for the Twist Of projects?
LR: I guess in a way for my whole life I've
been twisting some kind of music. (laughs) Even Wes
Bound, dedicated to the great jazz guitarist
Wes Montgomery was a twist on his music. Some of my earliest
fusion projects were twisting straight-ahead jazz with contemporary
R&B and pop and that whole west coast sound back in the
70s that included Larry Carlton, Dave Grusin, Tom Scott. So
I was twisting even back then because they called it fusion,
but it was really twisting all these elements together. When
I went to do the Jobim project, I had already done a lot of
Brazilian style records. For this one I wanted to take Jobim's
tunes and really put an American perspective on it.
There are a few Brazilian guests on it but mostly it's from an
American contemporary jazz point of view. I knew it was a variation
of Brazilian music rather than an authentic Brazilian approach.
One day it became apparent to me that it was a twist on Brazilian
music, so it became A Twist of Jobim.
We carrried that on with Marley and I delved into the reggae
side then we did the Motown collection.
SV: When you were putting these together how did
you decide who was going to do what song?
LR: The nice thing about those three projects
was that I didn't have to worry about composition.
I only had to worry about arranging and orchestrating and
who would do what, which is a big endeavor in itself. But
the compositions were there. That's the beauty of the twist
of projects, it was a composer-type avenue. It was Jobim,
then Marley, then the Motown project covered a wider scope
of these great songs by different composers. I picked the
songs first, then I picked the players. I would pick people
that I thought were appropriate for each song then try to
organize it from that point of view.
SV: When you were starting out
before you started doing your own recordings and you were
doing lots of sessions for multiple artists in about every
type of music there was, you were really young at the time.
Do you think this has influenced your ability to not get tied
down to one style of music.
LR: I think that's for sure and in a way
that experience became my insurance policy for a lifetime
of hopefully approaching music from a fresh point of view
because I refuse to be tied down to one way to perceive instrumental
music. So having that versatility as a young musician, when
I was a student growing up in LA I really loved anybody that
played the guitar well. It could be a country guitarist, a
blues player, a classical player. If someone was a virtuoso
on the guitar, I was going to check it out so that influenced
me being open to lots of music. I was a very rhythmic player.
My sister was playing Motown hits in her room while
I was playing Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery in the other
room so one day I started trying to play the rhythm guitar
parts that were so classic on those Motown songs and that
helped my rhythm playing immensely
SV: You've been doing solo albums since 1976 and before that you
were playing sessions. You've done all these styles. You've never gotten into
a rut. How do you stay fresh and original for the long haul?
LR: I've made a mantra to try not to get
into a rut. I have the opportunity as a guitarist and as a
recording artist to make albums, so it's really important
to my fans and maybe even more important to me, to stay fresh
and keep exploring and keep learning. It was interesting doing
this album with so many musicians spread out over different
continents. It was a technically challenging project and over
the eight months I was always excited about it. That's a good
sign. The way to do it is to keep checking out music, listening
to young people play music, traveling and doing concerts in
front of live audiences. A lot of this world music flavor
was inspired by last year's tour where I did concerts in Europe
and South Africa. I was in Asia too, then in the States. Just
by being absorbed in every town and keeping your perceptions
open you heard the flavors of the world.
SV: It's a matter of staying open and surrounding
yourself with other creative people.
LR: And not listening to one format all the
time. You need to remain like a kid. I have a young son who
is immersed in music and I think that's kept me fresh, seeing
him jam and checking out what he listens to and seeing him
discover music again. It helps the adults discover music again. I
suggest for any adult to not be turned off if you don't agree
with your kids' choices in music. A lot of times if you're
lucky you can influence your kid and your kid can influence
SV: There is also so much incredible
adult oriented music out there. You just have to go exploring
and like you said, not get locked into genre or format.
LR: Because of the internet and the way we
get music now, there are so many ways to hear it. There's
internet radio and satellite radio, cable music channels,
even the music you hear in the coffee shops. One thing that
I think is not so healthy is the trend in corporate radio
where you're only listening to these small groups of songs.
They've shaved off all of the creativeness in music. That's
when you're going to get bored and start talking about why
isn't music like it was back in the day. But if you wake up
and search out all these new avenues you can find so many
SV: Where do you think you're going to go next?
LR: It's probably another big left hand turn because
a few years ago Dave Grusin and I did a classical crossover record
called Two Worlds that had several
classical guests on it and it looks like we are going to fire
up another one like that. It will be with orchestra, classical
guitar, Dave's elegant piano and we've talked to Chris Botti
and James Taylor about joining us and now we are talking to some
classical artists to cross it over with them.
SV: So it goes right back to what you said about
hearing and playing all kinds of music, and giving other
musicians a chance to participate in the process. When they
hear Smoke'N'Mirrors people are going to want to do explore
some more African music. Is there anything you'd recommend?
LR: First, go to the internet and look up
Fela Kuti. He's passed away now and he left a great legacy
of music. There's a 20 minute track called "Suffering
and Smiling" that is a great classic track I highly recommend.
It develops into these jazzy elements over this great rhythmic
thing that makes you want to get up and dance. There's really
such a plethora of African artists out there. If you want a
more close-to-home introduction I recommend going back to Paul
Simon's Rhythm of The Saints. It's
a classic album.
Want to go exploring? Here are some websites with resources
on African music.
website. You can hear her captiavating debut CD, including
the original recording of "Memeza."
www.afropop.org – African
and world music via public radio and the internet
www.africahit.com – African
music TV. African hit music videos 24 hours a day
lots of links to the whole spectrum of African music sites from
traditional to pop and hip-hop