Lee Ritenour was a little busy last week. But that’s wasn’t really unusual for him. He had gigs in China, and so we weren’t able to schedule a time for a last-minute chat. Ritenour, a guitarist who’s released over 30 records under his own name, has basically been busy for the last 50 years.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Ritenour was surrounded by the entertainment industry, and so a lot of the young musicians that he played with as a teenager went on to be session players and professionals in the field. Ritenour’s impressive career includes a surprising list of credits as a sideman on recordings by a range of legends, joining artists like Peggy Lee, Oliver Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie and Pink Floyd in the studio. Ritenour was on the sessions with the Brothers Johnson, with producer Quincy Jones, when they recorded a hit version of the Shuggie Otis song “Strawberry Letter 23.” Ritenour studied both jazz and classical guitar, in addition to amassing a string of sessions as a studio session player.
But while working as a session player requires serious technical skills, versatility, and a kind of low-friction approach with an ego that’s kept in check by performing to help others realize their vision and sound, Ritenour eventually found the routine to be a distraction from his own creative goals.
“It became limiting after a while because I realized I wanted to have a style of my own,” Ritenour has said in older interviews on the subject. “I didn’t want to play everybody else’s style.”
This is a guy who’s been in on literally thousands of studio sessions, recording on other people’s albums, contributing to commercial jingles, soundtracks and more.
Ritenour, 67, may have grown tired of the studio work that kept him busy at the start of his career, but he’s watched the industry change over the decades, and he has some interesting insights for younger musicians looking to make a living as session players. Of course, one has to master one’s instrument and be versatile in a lot of different styles, but Ritenour has also suggested that there’s an interpersonal component to success in the field.
“You can’t be shy. You need to be a people person,” he told students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “People like to work with people that they like.”
In terms of career advice, telling young people to make sure others like them is a little like telling them to just be really good at what they do. It’s not necessarily so easy, but for Ritenour, it’s all about joi’d’vivre, and it all comes back to the music eventually.
Ritenour has long been a big fan and student of Brazilian music. He first went to the South American country in 1973, and he’s been folding aspects of Brazil’s deep music culture into his own music ever since, working with masters of samba, bossa nova, Tropicalia and batucada in projects over the past 45 years. He’s had Caetano Veloso on an album. He’s recorded with Joao Bosco and with Carlinhos Brown and numerous other stars of Brazilian music. In 1997, Ritenour produced and essentially led an all-star tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the key architects of bossa nova.
Ritenour has said that the Brazilian people and Brazilian music “unlocked a lot of feeling” in him. And he’s returned over and over to Brazilian music, which is often rooted in the country’s vibrant Carnival culture, parades and dancing. Brazilian samba is jubilant and effervescent music with public dancing, call-and-response playing, a strong national identity, high-contrast accents and infectious irregular time-line patterns all built into it. To understand the role it occupies in the culture, it’s something along the lines, in American terms, of New Year’s Eve at Times Square crossed with the Super Bowl crossed with South By Southwest. Bossa nova took those parade rhythms and transposed them to the guitar, taking the music of an entire drum ensemble and turning it into a slightly sad but complex jazz-oriented nightclub music.
Bossa nova is similar to the blues in the U.S., in that it’s a genre that manages to embrace sadness and triumph over it by turning the emotion into the center of a bigger celebration of melody, dance and philosophical perspective.
Ritenour’s clean and singing guitar tone and easy-on-the-ears approach work well in these contexts. His playing is at home in a groove, and his focus is often about highlighting a tune or exploring the guitar’s rhythmic potential rather than standing out in front of the music. (Though he certainly can shred at length, too.) Wide-ranging musical curiosity that has made him capable of moving from pop to classical to smooth jazz to funk to blues to bebop to rock, and which led him to Brazilian music has continued to drive some of Ritenour’s collaborations and recent projects, like his 2006 album Smoke N’ Mirrors, which blended elements of West African and Indian music into Ritenour’s easy-going groove-fusion.
With multiple trips to Asia practically every year, like the one that had him playing shows in China last week, it will be interesting to see if Ritenour incorporates musical influences from those travels into upcoming projects.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Lee Ritenour in concert at High Point Theatre, 220 East Commerce Ave., High Point, on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. $30-$40. highpointtheatre.com