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August 8, 2006
Interviewed by Shannon West

On Smoke'N'Mirrors 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 blues.

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 it.

SV: What inspired you to record "Southwest Passage?" 
"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" and "Povo."
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 jazz guitar.

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 Bona?
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 "4/12 Storms."
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 often.
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 sounds good.
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 you.

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 fun things..

SV: Where do you think you're going to go next?
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.   Zamajobe's website. You can hear her captiavating debut CD, including the original recording of "Memeza." – African and world music via public radio and the internet – 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




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