Lee Ritenour speaks with
DPRP’s Menno von Brucken Fock
Lee Ritenour grew up in Los Angeles (USA). As a very young guitarist and session musician he played with Tony Bennett and Lena Horne; his name can be found in the booklets of albums by the greatest artists in the last century because he did an incredible amount of sessions. To name just a few: Simon & Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Barbara Streisand, Steely Dan, B.B. King, Michael McDonald, George Benson, Phil Collins, opera great Renee Fleming and even Pink Floyd! In the seventies Lee used to play the Tuesdaynights in the Baked Potato, with a band including Dave Grusin, Patrice Rushen, Harvey Mason and Ernie Watts. This became part of his musical landscape for five years. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Joe Sample, and even Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell could be seen in the audiences that would pack the house till the wee hours of the morning. Together with Dave Gruisin he was awarded a Grammy for the album Harlequin (1986). Next to numerous #1 spots in guitar polls, he received the prestigious “Alumnus of the Year” award from USC (Thornton School of music) in 1992.
Lee has recorded over 40 albums and co-founded Fourplay, the most successful band in contemporary jazz, with keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason. Between 1991 and 1998 he played in this ensemble when he left to work on more solo works. He was replaced by Larry Carlton. The first Fourplay album in 1991 spent an unprecedented 33 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart. Among his notable collaborations are illustrious names such as Phil Collins, Brazilian greats Ivan Lins, Caetano Veloso, Djavan and Jao Bosco, jazz legend George Benson and Chaka Kahn. His latest solo CD is Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors which is another fine addition to his ‘smooth jazz’ oeuvre. Together with his lifelong friend Dave Grusin he recorded Amparo, the follow up to the highly successful classically orientated album Two Worlds (1999). Furthermore he was producer of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band’s latest CD Act Your Age (which is nominated for 3 Grammys). Recently a dream of Lee’s came true when The 6-String Theory was released, an homage to the guitar and a collaboration between Lee and both new young talented guitarists as well legendary names like George Benson, B.B. King and Steve Lukather.
In November 2009, Lee Ritenour played a fully packed “Boerderij” in Zoetermeer (Netherlands) but although I got to speak with him, the interview was too short. Fortunately I got another opportunity about one year later on 3rd November 2010 at that same venue, the famous Boerderij in Zoetermeer. Together with the information in the previous interview, this is what the amicable guitarist/composer/producer had to say….
LEE: Before we start, for which media is this interview for?
MENNO: for iO Pages magazine on progressive rock and the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, a well known website in English.
LEE: OK, you mean progressive rock like Tool and Porcupine Tree? (Menno nods to confirm); you know my son Wes -he’s seventeen now and quite a drummer too- and I went to concert by Porcupine Tree recently and I really liked Steven Wilson and also the drummer, Gavin Harrison. Funny thing is my son told me Gavin mentioned me in a modern drum-magazine because the first time he began to like odd meters, was when he heard Steve Gadd play 7th on one of my albums!
MENNO: I noticed he participated on your last solo album Smoke ‘n Mirrors (2006) together with renowned artists like bassist John Pattituci and world class musicians like Grusin, Da Costa and Rushen. Does that mean your son Wes (named after the famous guitar player Wes Montgomery – MvBF) is working hard to be a professional musician like his dad and if so, do you feel comfortable with that idea since the whole music-scene has been changing so much?
LEE: 🙂 Yeah it sure looks that way and you know what – the music picks YOU, you don’t pick the music! Although things changed dramatically, they don’t know that, so they’re making music the way they’re making music! People still need music and I think the new generation will find a way to make a living, just like we did.
MENNO: Three concerts in the Netherlands…. how were Groningen en Hengelo?
LEE: They were great! I like Hengelo, it’s a nice, cool & clean city, very nice club there (Metropool – MvBF), nice equipment, good sound and nice people to work with.
MENNO: It says on your website, one of your first accomplishments was at the age of sixteen, playing with the Mama’s & the Papa’s. How did you get involved?
LEE: It was just a couple of sessions really, but this is how I got involved, quite a funny story! I was playing in a local band at the age of about sixteen at the time. This guy had a band called the Afro Blues Quintet. He was playing jazz with a Latin plan to it. It was the late sixties you know and he wanted to combine what he had done with rock ‘n’ roll, quite clever actually because Latin, jazz & rock is like a kind of fusion idea! He had a rock ‘n’ roll singer in the band and he heard about me, this kid in high school playing both jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, so he asked me to join. We would rehearse every weekend in this fancy house in a nice area of town but we would never do any recordings and we didn’t do any gigs. All the guys began smoking dope as soon as the rehearsals started, except me because I didn’t do that, I wasn’t even sixteen because I remember my dad driving me to these rehearsals. Then finally this leader of the band said: John Phillips of The Mama’s & The Papa’s is going to produce a demo on us. Everybody said wow, this is great, because they were huge at the time! So we went up to Beverly Hills, to this huge mansion where Phillips had his own studio in the house. Nice studio! There we recorded that demo – never went anywhere – but then John heard me play guitar and he asked me to sit around and play on some tracks for The Mama’s & The Papa’s. This is when I met Leland Sklar, the bass player and Ed Green, the drummer. We did this tracks and I’ve looked for them for years and I assume they came out some time but I never found them. So that’s how the rumor got started that I played with The Mama’s & The Papa’s. Officially I did do some recordings for them, but did it come out? I don’t know. The funny part of the story, why we got connected to John Phillips: that guy, who was the leader of our band, was John’s dealer (laughter) !!!
MENNO: You have worked with Pink Floyd too. Can you tell us something about those days?
LEE: Yeah sure! I’ve worked on The Wall. Bob Ezrin, the producer asked me to play on some of the tracks and if I ‘m not mistaken the original LP release doesn’t have any of the studio musician’s names on it. There’s a few studio musicians playing on the album like a few background singers, a percussionist, me on guitar and a couple of other people. Ezrin told me that ‘we may not put your name on the cover’ because the record company wanted to give the public the image it was all Pink Floyd playing. In the later editions it came out it wasn’t only Pink Floyd and our names were on there as well.
MENNO: You never worked with them again?
LEE: No, it was just a one time event. As a matter of fact I am about to give Bob Ezrin a call because he’s got connections with Edge. I would love to have Edge on the album too because I’ve worked with him a couple of years back. We did a tribute to BB King and we ended up on stage all together with Bono, Edge, BB King and myself. (MvBF: we now know Edge is not on the 6 String Theory album, so apparently things didn’t work out!).
MENNO: You were nicknamed Captain Fingers because of all the session work in the seventies and you named your production company also Captain Fingers. Do you remember who came up with that name?
LEE: It was kind of in the fusion days some fans began calling me ‘Fingers’. I was playing with a lot of chops & technique and a bit later they said like ‘hey Captain, Captain Fingers, how are you doin’? So I thought it was a funny name and decided to write a tune. I ended up calling the album Captain Fingers, so the name stuck forever!
MENNO: The eighties were the age of electronics. If I’m correct I hear syn-drums, lots of synths and electronic effects on the albums from that period. You recorded many songs playing bass yourself, playing synths and you programmed the drum-machine yourself too?
LEE: I’ve always been into technology, I’m a geek! When things kept evolving from the late seventies into the eighties I couldn’t stay away from all the new toys. In 1979 there was the first LinnDrum machine and I saw it with Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones and I started to use one and the RIT album. I’m heavily into Logic Audio now, Pro Tools and all the computers. I’ve got a fully equipped studio at my house since 1984 you know and I’ve done almost all of my records in my own studio! Furthermore the synths in the eighties were really exciting because every year there was something new, meaning you could add a lot of colors to your music. The downside however was that it became a very easy to recognize ‘eighties sound’.
MENNO: On the album Earth Run (1985) you used a synthaxe, next to Ibanez, Fender and Gibson guitars. Do you still own that synthaxe and/or do you still use that instrument?
LEE: I don’t own it anymore. In one respect I loved that instrument. The man who invented it in England was some kind of ‘mad genius’ and Allan Holdsworth and I were the proponents of it. Now this instrument was incredibly sensitive, it was always breaking and when you played it outside it went completely crazy from the humidity. The technology just wasn’t ‘sound’. The funny thing is it’s 2010 now and the technology for the guitar synthesizer is still basically the same as it was in my first 360 systems guitar synthesizer back in 1978. That one I’ve used on The Captain’s Journey. Later the digital version came, the sythaxe but I’ve sold it to a guy in the Flecktones (The ‘guy’ is “Futureman” – MvBF) who transformed it into a Synthaxe Drumitar, a drum-machine! I believe it’s still the only instrument used like this in the world.
MENNO: Was it a deliberate choice to use electronics instead of musicians of flesh & blood?
LEE: Well, you know, your whole life you play with real musicians and then all of a sudden there are these electronic toys: it’s a whole new way to paint a picture! Of course later you go back to the real people again, but it’s another way to explore music.
MENNO: Did the evolution in technology influence the way you compose?
LEE: Definitely, a 100%! With a Lap Top today, you can do some damage! For a composition you just need a Lap Top on the road. You used to need a whole rack of keyboards, guitars and other instruments to get a similar result. Now composing still can happen with an acoustic guitar, writing a melody and probably that is still the best way for me. In the early days I used to record an idea on a cassette recorder, take the next cassette recorder and put another idea on that one. But today you can also get inspired by all those wonderful loops, sounds and colors and it can take you in a completely different direction. So I use everything: from natural to the most teched-out possibilities: whatever gets the job done is good for me (grins).
MENNO: What do you enjoy most: playing live or compose & create?
LEE: With composing I have a sort of love-hate relationship. It’s like working a muscle you haven’t worked out in the gym for ten years and you decide to work out: it’s like the worst thing, it hurts! I don’t compose every day, I compose for projects. I just don’t sit around and write a song, I used to do that when I was younger but now I have to be motivated somehow. For instance for this 6- String Theory project I wrote two -actually two and a half- songs. This song L.P., the beebop tune with Pat Martino, that was very directed: I wanted to write a tune that had the inspiration of Les Paul and I wanted to play that song together with Pat Martino, so it had a very clear frame. It’s best for me when I have a frame; I love composing, once I get into it. Once the muscles start working you’re okay, so in the first week or two composing is a struggle and at first the garbage comes out and next is the good stuff! Live playing is in the blood, it’s so fun and I’ve been doing it even more these last years than before. In the studio making records is also a part of the business I love, so I guess I just love the variety!
MENNO: What kind of education did you get to become such an accomplished guitar player?
LEE: In those days – back then, but even still today there are amazing musicians living in Los Angeles; all kinds of musicians: jazz, blues, rock, classical you name it! Now in those days you could find & dial the names of celebrities like Joe Pass or Barney Kessel just by looking in the phone book. So my dad called Barney Kessel when I was 12 years old and told him his son was a great guitar player and he was willing to take me as a student. Now at the time he didn’t take me as a full time student, but he recommended an incredible teacher named Duke Miller. I was taking lessons when I was 9 and college lessons when I was in high school. In the USC (Thornton School of music) I started classical guitar with Chris Parkening; I took lessons from Howard Roberts, from Joe Pass, Barney Kessel: I had all the greatest teachers so I really was a lucky dog!
MENNO: You also started to play in bands at a very young age?
LEE: Well, that’s the other thing that’s very different from today: there were no machines! You needed live musician for everything. You needed musicians for parties, because there were no DJ’s, musicians for demos, you needed musicians for e-ve-ry aspect of music! When I was a studio musician – still very young- TV shows had 30 musicians on it. Now, a guy can do a TV show in his room on his lap top, composing it and producing it! But anyway, in those days a lot of people were working in that industry so I was able to play in bands an earn money when I was 12, 13,14,15 and when I was 13, I was playing in a Big Band with mostly college guys. These college guys all had casuals so they were playing weddings and parties and … they hired me! During that period when I was 14, I met Jeff Porcaro and David Paich from Toto, I met drummer Ndugu Chancler and at the age of 16 I met Patrice Rushen (who was 14 then).
MENNO: Earlier in your solo career, on RIT for instance you played in the same sort of style as the early Toto played, more in the vein of rock & funk: do you agree?
LEE: Well, I guess it’s the “L.A. sound” plus Jeff Porcaro played on a number of tracks and even Mike Porcaro played on some of the tracks on Captain Fingers. David Foster was coming up at the time and he and David Paich had a kind of similar style ( in the eighties, not today)! Steely Dan was around too.
MENNO: Were you listening to progressive rock like Yes, Pink Floyd or Genesis at the time?
LEE: Oh definitely! You know Daryl Stuermer, the guitar player for Genesis and Phil Collins ended up to be one of my best friends and I got to know Phil Collins real well! In those days I went to a bunch of Genesis shows and I remember Phil, Daryl and I were going to a Peter Gabriel concert and we were in the fourth row. Peter was doing Shock The Monkey and Phil was going like ‘oh this is so great’. Now he would be playing that same theatre like the next night and he was so ‘depressed’, saying things like ‘oh my music is so happy and so stupid and Peter’s music is so great (laughing out loud by Lee)… he really is a funny guy! Before he played with me in Fourplay, he already ended up playing on one of my eighties records, Banded Together, and I guess that album is somewhat progressive isn’t it?
MENNO: Absolutely! Can you explain why you moved away from that style, because your last solo album Smoke ‘n ‘ Mirrors is even more towards jazz than rock or funk?
LEE: I think it’s been a natural evolution towards the more acoustic stuff and the groove stuff. The groove stuff is a big part of me too and the Brazilian thing got very strong with me. In the late fifties and sixties there was a huge wave of Brazilian music in the US; artists like Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Joao Gilberto were quite popular and I just loved the acoustic guitar rhythm those guys played, I loved the language and the sophistication of the jazz harmonies, especially by Jobim who is the absolute master at that. Today, I’m moving almost back to progressive rock with the album 6 String Theory. The music on this album ranges from blues to rock, from metal to country and classical. I’m the producer, it’s my creation but because it’s an all star project I will not be playing on every track.
MENNO: There are quite a few new talents as well as celebrities on it: Slash, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, Jonny Lang, Andy McKee (acoustic guitar virtuoso with 30 million Youtube hits), Vince Gill (country music guitar great), Guthrie Govan (the shredder from John Payne’s Asia), B.B. King, George Benson, John Scofield, Pat Martino, Mike Stern (Jazz-fusion guitarist), Robert Cray, Keb Mo (Delta blues guitarist since 1994), Taj Mahal (blues legend, since 40 years), Joe Bonamassa, Joe Robinson (18 year old winner of the ” Australia’s Got Talent” competition), Hotei (Japanese rock guitar superstar) and also Shon Boublil (16 year old winner of the “Yamaha 6 String Theory Competition”). I presume that album will be for sale tonight?
LEE: Yes it will be for sale. This was like a dream project for me. This year, 2010, I’ve been playing the guitar for fifty years and I’ve thought about this project for a long time. Probably, in a way, ever since I was a kid I was designed to do a record like this because I always loved so many different kinds of guitar play. I loved blues guitar playing, jazz, classical, country, I love anybody who can play the guitar well. I never had any barriers. As time went along over the thirty years of my career, I met a lot of these people; some of them became friends, some of them I knew a little bit and a few I didn’t know at all. But you know one of my best friends is Steve Lukather who helped me to get Slash, whom I didn’t know and Neal Schon whom I knew a little. Vince Gill, the great country guitar player: I didn’t know him at all, but I only knew he was a truly great guitar player, period. Now a friend of mine, Mike McGuire, is the head of the custom shop at Gibson and I asked if he knew Vince Gill. He replied ‘oh yeah, he’s a good friend of mine’! So I asked him how to get hold of him, if maybe he had the phone number of his manager. Mike said: ‘oh no, no,no, here’s he cell phone number, just call him’. I replied ‘I just can’t call him on his cell phone, I don’t even know him’ and Mike said ‘please go on, just call him, he’s a big of yours, he’ll love to hear from you!’. So I called him if he wanted to participate and instantly he agreed by saying ‘I’m on’! Almost all the guitar players were like that, you know: BB King, Scofield, George Benson, everybody loved the idea. It was very hard logistically to put the project together but I got very lucky because a lot of the artists were in Los Angeles in January 2010 to perform on the NAMM show. I got about 85% of the guitar players live in the studio! Only B.B. King recorded in Las Vegas, Vince Gill in Nashville, Hotei in Tokyo and Robert Cray recorded somewhere else too. That’s unheard of to get so many people to play live in your studio for such a project!
MENNO: Talking about Hotei, how did you hold of him?
LEE: I have a big career in Japan, I’m there a lot! I was playing the Blue Note in Tokyo and then I did the Tokyo Jazz festival when the people of the Blue Note said to me; ‘we’re going back to the Blue Note this evening because Hotei is there -he is like the Japanese Jeff Beck, you know- and he said he wanted to meet you’. So I went back with them and I met him but I didn’t say anything about the project then because it was too early at the time, but I kept it in the back of my mind; maybe it would be cool to have this rock star participating also because Japan was very involved in the project because of Yamaha. Luckily he contributed too and as could be expected, did a fine job!
MENNO: The album also includes a contribution of George Benson: Is there any connection with the George Benson Life Time Achievement award from the Canadian Smooth Jazz Society you were honored with in2008?
LEE: No, not really. I’ve known George for about thirty years now and I’ve worked on a lot of his big hits as a session player, like Gimme The Night with Quincy Jones. There a lot of stuff I’ve done with George, so were just good friends.
MENNO: How about the new young talents?
LEE: Well, my fifty years of playing the guitar was one source of inspiration, the fact that only the guitar has the ability to morph into all these different styles was another, but also a very important source of inspiration was Youtube. The fact that we can see videos from all over the world with incredibly talented kids playing every instrument is unbelievable. There’s some phenomenal talent -and some awful talent too- out there! So I wanted to have some new talent on the record and that is how the idea of an international competition came about. The winner would be invited to play on the record. We were fortunate enough to get an endorsement from Yamaha, Monster Cable and also very lucky to have the Berklee College of Music involved. So the winner who plays on the record, the then 16 year old Shon Boublil, has won a four year scholarship at this famous college and he started last September! The competition was huge: contestants from 45 countries and overall there were six winners, each in different categories. We had the final in Los Angeles and Shon recorded in my studio the next day. The other thing about Youtube is: I got the other three guitar players who I call my ‘youtube babies’ from Youtube: Joe Robinson, 18 at the time, great country guitarist, Guthrie Govan, a great English shredder, because I had to have a real shredder and he’s there for the real ‘guitar geeks’. And then finally we have Andy McKee: if you go to his Youtube site you can see he has about a 100 million hits on his videos. Next to the legends like B.B. King, Pat Martino and George Benson, who are somewhat older it was nice to have some younger talent on the record too. I think there’s a nice balance on the record.
MENNO: What’s your interest in classical music? I’m referring of course to the Two Worlds album (2000) with Dave Grusin and its successor Amparo (2008)?
LEE: That was a huge challenge! To learn all that music and get my sound back; a challenge to have just guitar and piano with an orchestra and to work with people like Joshua Bell and Renee Fleming. We did a huge concert with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra a few years back; you sit in the middle of the orchestra and you’re playing Bach in such a way that at the end, you get that nod from all those musicians… and that’s really something! Dave and I are not a 100% classical musicians but we understand classical music very well. I don’t have the chops of a classical guitarist who has been only doing that for decades, but I have the tone and the maturity and both Dave and I respect the genre of classical music and we try to make it work within our context.
MENNO: Were all the compositions from classical composers or also compositions from Dave or yourself?
LEE: Most of the compositions were from the famous classical composers. We did Bach, Fauré, Händel, Ravel, so mostly traditional composers. For the Amparo album, Dave wrote a suite: Three Latin Dances and I wrote one piece called Echos. On the Two Worlds album I wrote a piece called Lagrima. Just before I embarked on the tour to Europe Dave, Don (Grusin) and I played some shows together.
MENNO: Next to Gibsons & Yamahas, you use a Carruthers guitar but I don’t think you play a Carruthers guitar on the road but rather Gibson and Yamaha, particular reasons?
LEE: I have one of John Carruthers’ guitars. John makes great guitars, he ‘s a fine craftsman but primarily my main guitars are the Gibsons. The 335 which I don’t have on this trip, the one I’m playing right now is the ‘Gibson L5 Lee Ritenour jazz guitar’ and the ‘Les Paul’ that Gibson made for me. The acoustic guitars are primarily Yamahas. So my Roger Sadowski and John Carruthers guitars – John’s is a little more specialized- I use more in the studio.
MENNO: What did GRP (Grusin-Rosen-Productions) mean to you personally? Does it still exist?
LEE: That was family! Larry Rosen , Dave Grusin… I mean, I was very early in when Dave Grusin started to produce his first things like Earl Klugh, Angie Bofill, Tom Browne (jazz trumpeter) before it became a record label. As record label there was probably nothing quite like that for me, because Dave was my best friend and still is, so yeah… family! Technically GRP was bought by Universal.; then Universal bought Polygram which also had Verve. Then GRP, Verve and Decca Jazz all merged together. Eventually when things got rough in the business in The States they shut down all the jazz and they kept just a couple of jazz acts like Diana Krall and maybe one or two more, not much. So GRP is mostly catalogue now.
MENNO: You have worked with several different record companies. At the moment you’re working with Concord but that’s a different company than you used before?
LEE: Well, yes and no! Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors has been released through IE Music in conjunction with Peak, which was signed to Concord, so it’s all under the Concord parent-company. And then a lot of the ‘Concord people’ used to work for GRP. Also my other company which was GRP, but then also Decca when I was doing the classical record with Dave… that’s all Universal now right? Concord is distributed by Universal, so even though Concord is privately owned, still the distribution is via Universal: it’s all aunts and uncles, you know like relatives. Sometimes distant relatives or relatives who don’t talk to each other, but still relatives!
MENNO: Do you have time to listen to music yourself?
LEE: Of course! Just like my son Wes, he’s 17 now and he listens to everything, it’s crazy! So I end up listening to everything too, ranging from Porcupine Tree to Ravi Shankar to E.S.P. , you name it.
MENNO: Are you planning to record another more rock oriented solo album or do you prefer the style you have been playing these last decades?
LEE: I must admit I enjoyed dipping into the rock a bit more with songs like Freeway Jam and the ballad I recorded with Steve Lukather and I enjoyed being around Luke, Schon and Slash but ultimately my style is a little more sophisticated than pure rock, so if I would do a rock album ever, there would still be a degree of jazz in there as well, what the would be called ‘fusion'(laughs out loud).
MENNO: How important are merchandise and/or the touring for you personally and businesswise?
LEE: There no doubt about it that people like me are touring more and playing for live audiences more, because that’s the one thing that cannot be taken out of the air. Somebody can record tonight’s show and put it on Youtube, but it’s not the same as being here, you know. It’s hard to get paid as an artist now because there’s so much music in the air, it’s really for free, Torrents and such. On 6-String Theory somebody did a study: they stopped counting at 40.000 that was stolen.. that effects us a lot! There was a pretty good budget for that record but I had to put together Monster Cable, Concord and Yamaha and they had to work together to get it done. People might think it’s easy to make a record like this but look at all the class! Look at the rhythm players on the album, they’re the best of the best! Anyway I love touring, it helps to pay the bills, it helps to sell records and it keeps my musicians employed, it’s all good!
Interview & Live Photos by Menno von Brucken Fock
|Feel the Night||1979|
|Rit, Vol. 2||1982|
|On the Line||1983|
|Lee Ritenour and His Gentle Thought||1992|
|Between the Sheets (Fourplay)||1993|
|Larry & Lee||1994|
|Alive in L.A.||1997|
|A Twist of Jobim||1997|
|This Is Love||1997|
|World of Brazil||2005|
|Smoke n’ Mirrors||2006|
|6 String Theory||2010|