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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1695

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Lee Ritenour: Rhythm Sessions
by George Graham

(Concord 33709 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/26/2012)

Of all the instruments used in popular music, the electric guitar seems to be the one that most attracts devotees. Perhaps it's because you can play really loud as a beginner, and it has been the symbol of rock & roll almost since the beginning. So a lot of would-be musicians start on the guitar and as a consequence, there has been something of a guitar culture among rock fans over the years, and it has engendered a bunch of guitar heroes whose names may not be well-known to the public at large, but who are considered major figures in that guitar culture. Sometimes, the reputation is well-deserved, and sometimes it comes from happening to play guitar in a popular band.

One gentleman who is considered one of the significant figures in this guitar world is Lee Ritenour, who has just released a new recording called Rhythm Sessions.

Lee Ritenour grew up in Los Angeles and came into playing the guitar professionally at an early age, developing a reputation as a studio guitar ace in his teens. He did his first studio session with the Mamas and the Pappas when he was 16 back in the 1960s. He was backing up Lena Horne and Tony Bennett at age 18, and over the years has been on hundreds, perhaps thousands of records as a studio guitarist. He figured he has done over 3000 sessions with among others, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Simon & Garfunkel and Peggy Lee. He has also had his share of higher visibility projects. He has been part of the fusion and so-called "smooth-jazz" group Fourplay since 1991.

Ritenour has released a fairly steady stream of his own albums, many of them collaborations with other notable musicians. His last CD, Six String Theory from 2010 was a kind of ultimate collaborative project, bringing together a very wide range of guests artists to the point that Ritenour himself did not appear on the all the tracks. Leading up to that album, he was involved with a guitar competition, auditioning emerging young guitar players with an invitation for the winners to appear on his record. He also worked with a number of prominent guitar players on that recording.

Now, Ritenour is out with another collaborative project, Rhythm Session. This time, he expanded the competition among emerging musicians to include the full rhythm sections, including keyboard players, bassists and drummers, in addition to guitar. Some of the winners make their appearance here and there, but mainly, it's another get together with notable musicians, this time increasingly from the jazz and fusion world, such as Chick Corea, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Larry Goldings, Patrice Rushen and Peter Erskine. Interestingly, Ritenour plays a lot of acoustic guitar on this CD. So a fair amount of it could be considered a much straight jazz as fusion, but the material does tend toward the intelligent fusion sound that Ritenour is known for. For the most part, the CD avoids the cliches of so-called "smooth jazz." And unlike his last collaborative recording, Ritenour does appear on all the tracks.

The material also comes from an interesting variety of sources, including some original pieces, but there is also material by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, two by the Swedish jazz group EST, and a song by the late English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, with jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

The 12-tune, nearly hour-long CD opens with an original piece called The Village, which features guest appearances by keyboard man George Duke and bassist Stanley Clarke. The track has an interesting sound that is a combination of an atmospheric texture with a 6-beat rhythm influenced by African sounds. <<>>

The Nick Drake cover on the CD is River Man with a vocal by Kurt Elling. The arrangement is rather similar to Nick Drake's original from 1969, but Ritenour plays an easy-going electric lead guitar part, where the original was acoustic and lacked any lead guitar parts. Elling is great choice to do the vocal. <<>>

Getting into the funky sound that Ritenour often plays is a track called Fat Albert Rotunda a composition by Herbie Hancock. Bassist Marcus Miller is prominent, while Ritenour serves up some tasteful guitar parts. <<>>

The Chick Corea piece included on the CD is an unusual one for a guitarist. Children's Song #1 was written as a solo piano piece. Corea makes a guest appearance on piano. <<>> After the statement of the theme, which in the original was pretty much the entire piece, Ritenour creates a new section and take the tune in a different direction, with some nice acoustic guitar work. <<>>

One of the more appealing of the original tunes is called LA by Bike. It features Ritenour on lead acoustic guitar with Larry Goldings on organ. <<>>

The other of the two vocals on the CD is called Maybe Tomorrow, and the singer is a South African vocalist named Zamajobe. It's reasonably well done, but unlike most of the rest of the CD, it's a kind of stereotypical "smooth jazz" track full of the genre's trite ingredients. <<>>

On the other hand, a piece called 800 Streets by Feet by the Swedish group the Esbjorn Svensson Trio is interesting and jazzy with some spacey touches. One of the young musicians Ritenour features on this album is own his 19-year-old son Wesley, who plays drums on the track. <<>>

The CD end with the showcase for the musicians who were winners of Ritenour's Six String Theory competition. It's a piece called Punta del Sol by pianist and film composer Dave Grusin who appears elsewhere on the album. The players include Demetrious Nabors from Michigan and Hans De Wild from Holland on the keyboards, New Yorker Michael Feinberg on bass, and Turkish-born drummer Salim Munir, joining Ritenour for an easy-going light-fusion piece. <<>>

Guitarist Lee Ritenour's new CD Rhythm Sessions continues his collaborations with both veteran and emerging musicians, enlisted through the musical competition series he directs. The new CD is not as wide-ranging as his last release Six String Theory with its spectrum of guests, but this is a more focused album, and the playing first-class and generally quite tasteful throughout. It manages to avoid sounding like just another fusion or smooth-jazz album by a guitarist. The material, from a variety of sources, including original pieces, is a nice cross-section, and the sound sometimes approaches the acoustic quality of straight-ahead jazz, but it manages to keep the fusion beat not far below the surface.

Our grade for audio quality is about an A-minus. The mix is well-done, has good clarity and avoids trendy studio effects. But the dynamic range -- how well the recording reproduces the ebb and flow of volume changes -- is rather mediocre.

The heyday of jazz-rock fusion was the 1970s, and a number of guitarists came from that scene to become well-known among guitar fans. Lee Ritenour is certainly one that qualifies with his more than 40 years on the scene as both a leader and an active session musician. His new recording is definitely a worthwhile one for both the guitar cognoscenti and general fans of instrumental rock and fusion,

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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