"We should leave the world's politics to musicians"
Over a five decade long career, guitar legend, Lee Ritenour has played with everyone you can think of, including lending his guitar skills to Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and George Benson's 'Give Me The Night.' Despite the lengthy discography, he has never released a solo record.
'Dreamcatcher', recorded and released during the 2020 pandemic, is his reflection on the world and life's inspiration through a musical lens.
We caught up with Lee to find out more about his solo debut.
DREAMCATCHER IS YOUR FIRST SOLO PROJECT, WHY HAVE YOU NEVER DONE ONE BEFORE?
I was always the ensemble guy, the band guy. I've probably have done more albums than most people on the planet from my days with bands and doing sessions and producing records. For the last few years, I would play pieces on the shows that were improvised or composed and everyone kept egging me on to do a solo album. At the end of 2019, I started writing for it and then in 2020, the pandemic hit so I had that time. Of course, it's been 60 years of playing the guitar, so I've had a perspective that a lot of people haven't had.
YOU USED SEVEN GUITARS ON THE ALBUM, ARE THE SAME SEVEN GUITARS ON THE SLEEVE?
No, close, but the funny thing was I wasn't aiming to use seven guitars. I was working on the liner notes and I realised that I had used seven different guitars. It wasn't exactly the same seven that I had pulled out of the fire that hit the house and the studio. It just so happened that I pulled out seven that day and then seven guitars ended up on the album.
WAS THERE A CONCEPT BEHIND THE ALBUM?
The dreamcatcher concept was that the guitars had been my dreamcatcher throughout my life.
EVERYTHING GOING ON POLITICALLY HAS INFLUENCED SEVERAL TRACKS ON THE ALBUM – TELL US ABOUT THAT
In the case of 'Charleston' that was one of the songs that were written a few years earlier. Historically, it’s been known for the beginnings of the slave trade and all the terrible things that happened in this country with slavery. Yet musicians travel the world and get to play with other musicians and interface with people all over the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Africa or South Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Japan or China, the US.
People half-jokingly say we should leave the world's politics to musicians because in general, we find the best in other people. In Charleston a few years ago at a gig, the audience was very mixed [racially] - it was a modern-day South Carolina, so I wrote this tune. With the Trump administration, all of a sudden this systemic racism just popped back up in this country. It never goes away.
My dad wanted to be a piano player in Michigan and he snuck into Detroit to play with these [black] bands in the 30s and his parents didn’t like that. In a way, he came to California to get away from his racist parents. Racism works in reverse too. My dad was so proud when I started getting calls from Motown to do sessions, he thought “my son is funky, he can play”.
MUSICIANS HAVE ALWAYS GENERALLY BEEN BLIND TO PREJUDICE IN THAT WAY: IF YOU CAN PLAY, YOU'RE IN!
That’s right. And we found out from this pandemic that it’s a very small planet, but musicians have known that for a long long time. People like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington went overseas and got this tremendous response and then came back to the US and they couldn’t play certain places.
'MORNING GLORY JAM' HAS BEEN REWORKED ON THIS ALBUM, WHAT MADE YOU PUT IT ON THIS RECORD AND NOT THE 'TWIST OF RIT ALBUM?'
That song has been recorded several times over the years and I was looking at other material I hadn't recorded in a while for the 'Twist of Rit' album. For this album, I had enough material and it was a bit of work to write that many tunes, I wasn't planning on doing any covers.
At the end of the song, I do a rhythm jam and one of my strengths was always playing rhythm. I decided a simple tune would be appropriate so I could add four or five different guitars, all playing rhythm parts and I thought about 'Morning Glory'. So I did a simple chord/melody of the main tune and then when it got to the vamp I brought all the other guitars in and it was fun.
We used to do those kinds of sessions back in the 70s, especially for Barry White, where there'd be four of five guitar players lined up in a row, and they'd all be legendary guitar players. We always joked that when the record came out you could never hear those parts because it was covered up with strings and Barry's voice. We all love Barry, but someday it would be great to just hear that raw rhythm section. The tracks were completely jamming.
YOU'VE HAD A TRAUMATIC FEW YEARS AFTER THE FIRE, HOW HAS THAT IMPACTED ON YOUR MUSIC AND OUTLOOK ON LIFE?
We all go through journeys in life and that was my personal journey. I've been able to have an incredible and wonderful career and do just about everything I wanted to do. In 2018 I was set to go on a tour and I found myself for the first time ever having to go into hospital and have an aortic valve replaced. That was scheduled a week after the fire had happened – it had nothing to do with the fire. The same week the fire happened and we lost everything, I had to go into hospital and come back home, thanks to the insurance a very nice rental home at the beach in Los Angeles, none the less it wasn't the home I had walked out of weeks earlier. Just having the guitars was the basics.
When I started composing the record and then 2020 happened on top of it and we had another tour cancelled, it was very inspirational to reflect. I have the advantage of playing since I was 8 years old and having done it in the same city. In America, especially in California, people move around a lot. A lot of young musicians move out here, actors, actresses, the computer industry, all fields, it's a fluid state. The stability I had with the family and the guitar in Los Angeles all added up and helped me.
I KNOW YOU'VE BEEN INFLUENCED BY JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, HAVE YOU EVER WORKED TOGETHER?
No, we never worked together, we have met a few different times. He’s a bit older than me, but not too much older. When the Mahavishnu Orchestra came out it was like “whoa who is this guy”. Of course, he still looks after himself and plays great. It’s interesting that a lot of the guitar players that I grew up with are still hitting and kicking at life and most of them are still playing.
YOU'VE DONE MANY COLLABORATIONS IN YOUR CAREER, ARE THERE ANY OTHER MUSICIANS YOU'D LIKE TO WORK WITH?
There are so many young players out there, it's hard to name just one. My son is a drummer and plays with me a lot, he's 27 and keeps up with all the cats. Music is in good shape, good music and musicians keep coming. There are more players around the world evoking the music where they are from, it's good that people bring elements of where they are from into their music. Because of the internet and the ability to learn and copy, it's fairly abundant now that musicians on every instrument have tremendous technique. Having their unique voices, how they express themselves and have a style of their own is still challenging. It's one thing to copy, you can copy Jimi Hendrix, but you are never going to be Jimi Hendrix.
YOU'VE WORKED WITH STEVIE WONDER TOO, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Yeah, we did one session together and of course, I know him. But I worked with just about everybody. When Motown moved to Los Angeles in the 70s when I started getting sessions it was like the coolest thing. I got to work on all the Aretha Franklin albums. I’ve got to play at the White House for International Jazz Day a few years ago when Obama was still there. Aretha was there, Al Jarreau, John Mclaughlin, Pat Matheny, it was a great line up.
YOU AND YOUR FRIEND DAVE GRUSIN WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN THE JAZZ/FUNK CROSSOVER, HOW DID THAT COME FUSION ABOUT?
That had a lot to do with the East Coast and the West Coast because we were responding to some of the fusion stuff that was happening in the East Coast and then also Europe. When we got to the West Coast and the stuff at the Baked Potato, we were combining pop and R&B and even Brazilian elements into the jazz. So we were all starting to fuse these things together a little differently, a little more melodically than some of the fusion stuff that had been coming before. Those days with David Grusin, David Sandborn, Grover Washington, Pat Matheny and me, also Larry Carlton and Foreplay were a great bunch of musicians making music.
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