Lee Ritenour, jazz man for all sessions

Recovering from a 2018 fire that destroyed a hundred instruments, the LA guitarist gives fascinating insights into the studio world, including work with Dave Grusin, Steely Dan and Pink Floyd, as well as dubbing for George Benson

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Lee Ritenour. Photo by Alex Solca

“I’ve done 45 albums of my own before this but never a solo guitar record so I felt like I was doing my first album,” says Lee Ritenour of his current release Dreamcatcher. “I never thought of myself as a solo guitarist. I was always a band guy and I didn’t think I had the ability or confidence to do that kind of record so it was a challenge but I’m very happy with it.”

The album is Ritenour’s first since his annus horribilis in 2018 when his house and home studio were razed and he underwent major heart surgery.

“We live in the Malibu area and climate change has been happening and it was getting hotter and drier,” explains Ritenour. “The fires started far away on the other side of the canyon and I kept telling my wife ‘I don’t think it’s going to get to us.’ But the smoke was getting bad so I pulled out seven guitars and we evacuated around three o’clock, thinking we’d be back the next day. By 5.30 the entire house and studio were burned. Everything. About a hundred guitars got lost.”

At the time Ritenour was awaiting an operation to replace an aortic valve. “I had never been in hospital in my life,” he reflects. “I’d had very good health and always had a lot of energy. But I was having a hard time breathing and this thing was slowing me down and the doctor said ‘You have to deal with this.’ So the operation was scheduled, for a week after the fire. So that period was pretty intense and traumatic. But I got resettled at a rental house while we’re rebuilding the house in Malibu – then the pandemic came! But it gave me the opportunity to put all this emotion into the music.”

One of the tracks on Dreamcatcher, The Lighthouse, was inspired by the Los Angeles club where Ritenour had some of his most formative early musical experiences. “My dad took me there when I was 13 to hear Wes Montgomery. Wes was in his prime and playing his butt off and I’ll never forget that.”

‘I said “I’d like to play jazz like you, Mr. Pass.” So he started to explain all these scales and I said “Excuse me, but you never sound like you’re playing scales when you’re improvising.” And he said “No, I don’t think about any of that shit when I’m playing!”’

At the same age Ritenour had a guitar lesson with Joe Pass. “In those days everybody’s phone number was in the book and my father called him up and said ‘I have a talented young kid: can you give him a lesson?’ Sure enough, we go to Joe’s house and he said ‘What do you want to learn?’ And I said ‘To play jazz like you, Mr. Pass.’ So he started to explain all these scales and I said ‘Excuse me, but you never sound like you’re playing scales when you’re improvising.’ And he said ‘No, I don’t think about any of that shit when I’m playing!’ And he said ‘I tell you what. I’ll play some stuff and if you hear something you like, stop me and I’ll show you how to play it.’ So that was the lesson!”

Another album track, For DG, is dedicated to Dave Grusin. Ritenour explains that playing with Grusin enabled him to thrive in the 70s as a studio musician. “Dave’s was the golden name in Los Angeles and people [thought] ‘If Dave’s using this kid, we should too.’ I went from one session a week to 15 almost overnight and had this incredible studio career.”

Ritenour played, for example, on George Benson’s Give Me The Night album. “Quincy Jones called me at midnight and he said, ‘Rit, you’ve got to come to the studio. The second engineer accidentally erased a bit of George’s solo [on the title track] and George has gone back to Hawaii.’

“So I went down and they played me a cassette of the solo and I used George’s equipment and we fixed [the recording] – it was just a couple of bars. And Quincy said ‘Lee, don’t tell George about this, ever.’

“But 15 years later I said ‘George, I’ve got to tell you a funny story’ and I told him. And I said ‘Did you ever notice?’ And he said ‘No’ and just laughed. He thought it was the greatest.”

Ritenour played on Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues, in 1977. “I knew going into it that you would work on one part, whether a rhythm part or solo, for long, long hours and you never knew if you were going to make the [finished] record because they were always recording and always trying to get it exactly right.

“But a lot of people were like that. The Bee Gees, who I worked with on Saturday Night Fever, were as crazy as Steely Dan for getting it exactly as they wanted. And Pink Floyd made even Steely Dan look light – they had even more money and were willing to spend the time.”

Ritenour played on One Of My Turns and Comfortably Numb on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall.

“Basically it was just playing acoustic guitars [with Dave Gilmour]. It went on for some time but it was cool because they really cared about the music. And I appreciated that because sometimes you’d do pop sessions for terrible singers with terrible songs and a terrible producer and you could hardly wait to get out of there. But when you play on something special like with Pink Floyd, it was a treat.”

‘…sometimes you’d do pop sessions for terrible singers with terrible songs and a terrible producer and you could hardly wait to get out of there. But when you play on something special like with Pink Floyd, it was a treat’

Ritenour pretty much retired from sessions in the late 70s, subsequently releasing many acclaimed solo albums. Then, with Fourplay in the 90s, he released three big-selling albums, Fourplay, Between The Sheets and Elixir. “Harvey Mason has a very identifiable sound on drums, Bob James does on piano, I do on guitar and Nathan East was coming with his sound so when the four of us played together there was a fifth sound, a band sound. You can’t invent that. We heard things rhythmically, harmonically [and] melodically the same way and played together wonderfully but business things started to get in the way and I went back to solo records.”

After playing guitar for 60 years Ritenour remains dedicated to his art. “You have to constantly strive to try fresh things. You have to put your heart and soul into things and if you’re learning all the time, it’s exciting.”