Lee Ritenour Rolls Out New Tunes and Reconstructs Some Classics on 'A Twist of Rit'

“I’ve got some 250 tunes that I’ve composed over the years, and this was the first album ever that is all my songs,” says Lee Ritenour of his latest Concord release, Twist of Rit.
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“I’ve got some 250 tunes that I’ve composed over the years, and this was the first album ever that is all my songs,” says Lee Ritenour of his latest Concord release, Twist of Rit. “I started to realize that it had been 40 years since I did my first solo album, and this one is my 43rd, not counting compilations. I didn’t want to revisit the hits and rerecord them—I hate those kinds of projects—so I figured the only way I could do this was to select some tunes that I thought we could reconstruct and twist a bit to make them relevant in 2015.” Par for a guy who has had such a long and successful career as both an A-list session musician and a Grammy winning solo artist, Ritenour gives a lot of consideration to the projects that he puts his name on, and with this album he actually steered away from a long-awaited solo release in favor of something that would ultimately result in a live-in-studio project with a cadre of players that included veterans of his previous albums and a bevy of new recruits. The interesting thing is that while Ritenour re-cut a number of songs that have appeared on previous albums, the recording process circa-2015 differed significantly from they way he did things in the past. “We were layering a lot of stuff back then,” explains Ritenour. “Sometimes I would start with the rhythm parts and overdub the lead stuff, then Dave Grusin would pepper it with synth overdubs, and we’d overdub the horns and strings and percussion. We’d really build the tracks from the bottom up. This time I said, ‘Let’s put everybody in the same room and just roll.’”

Kudos to Ritenour for putting the resources in place to get a crew of top-flight players to perform live in the studio. “I wanted Ernie Watts [tenor sax], who has been along with me for the entire ride, and Paulino Da Costa [percussion]. I also needed two keyboards, so it was usually John Beasley and Dave Grusin, or Beasley and Patrice Rushen. I picked Michael Thompson for rhythm guitar because I love his playing and he comes up with such great colors, and Melvin Davis for bass, who has also been on a bunch of my projects. So I had my old mafia crew, but at the same time I wanted to make sure I had some younger guys pumping it up, so I picked drummers Chris Coleman and Ronald Bruner, Jr. to push the grooves into something a little fresher. That said, on ‘Wild Rice’—which was a song from my 1976 debut album, First Course—Ron said, ‘I’m going to channel Harvey Mason.’ I thought that was funny because Harvey was the original drummer on that tune!”

What motivated you to reach way back into your catalog for some of the songs on this album?

One day my 22 year-old son, Wes—who is a drummer and often goes on the road with me—mentioned a song off my first album called “Sweet Syncopation.” He said, “Hey dad, that’s a cool tune, why don’t you ever play it live?” I thought it was interesting that the song still rang true with him because he keeps me up to date on all the latest and greatest. We were listening to Snarky Puppy, Dirty Loops, and some other groups, and I noticed how heavily they were borrowing from some of those things we were doing in the ’70s with the horns and the grooves, and, in the case of Dirty Loops, the ’80s-style synths. So I put together about a 40-song playlist that was spread out amongst the four decades. Then I got together with John Beasley, who co-produced and co-arranged a lot of this project with me, because I wanted some fresh ears on the stuff. John is very current in what is going on today, so we went through the list of tunes and ended up with the ones on the record. That said, I actually started off by rehearsing the new songs like “Pearl,”“Workin’ It,” and “Twist of Rit,” by going into the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood for a weekend with Makoto Ozone—a great pianist and organist from Japan—Dave Weckl, and Tom Kennedy. We played all the new stuff, and then went in the following Monday and recorded in Hollywood. So those songs had a completely live-in-the-studio kind of feel. I wanted everything to be recorded exactly like a studio record, but the performances had to pretty much be live, and about 95 percent of the record is live. At one point the band was 12 guys on the older tunes, and everyone of them was a heavyweight. I knew that if we were pushing the needle with that many good players, something good was bound to happen.

Does songwriting come easy for you, and how do you keep melodies and grooves sounding fresh, given the huge number of instrumental tunes you’ve written?

The writing thing is very interesting because I love it, but it’s also one of the most challenging parts of being a musician. These days, I travel so much and do so many concerts, but I don’t have the energy to write when I’m on the road. Writing becomes very specific for a project, so when I’m starting something and I haven’t written for a while, it is one of the most painful processes because it’s like a muscle you have to work, and it’s a very elusive one. You can’t just say, “Okay, if I write four songs the fifth one is going to be really good.” It doesn’t work like that, and you just never know when the inspiration is going to hit. This time, after the first couple of tunes I wrote, I was thinking, “There’s nothing fresh here—it sounds like something I’ve written before.” But you go through this and push yourself, and eventually the good stuff comes. Once in a blue moon a tune will just appear pretty much in a complete sense. “Pearl” was like that. I was getting ready for that rehearsal with Dave Weckl, Makoto, and Tom Kennedy, and I had two new tunes that I figured we’d play that weekend at the club. The night before the rehearsal I was thinking that I could use one more tune, and a very dear friend of mine had just given me a Roger Sadowsky jazz guitar, and I was playing it a little bit and “Pearl” just happened. And the inspiration was partly his guitar, because it felt so nice to play. The arpeggio that runs through the tune came out first, and I just recorded that basic harmony on my computer and then came up with the melody quite quickly. I did a two-guitar demo to bring to the studio to show the guys, and the whole thing took me about an hour.

Are you ever inspired to write songs based on who you’re going to be recording with or what you’re listening to?

A few years back when I did the 6 String Theory record, I wrote “Lay It Down,” which is a duet with John Scofield, and I wrote it with him in mind. So sometimes it really helps. When I’m writing, a blank wall is definitely the hardest thing. Before I decided to do this record, I had a whole other idea for something I’ve never done before, and that’s a solo guitar record. I figured I’m overdue, but I really wanted to come up with something special, and I just didn’t feel I had the time. Then all of a sudden this other idea started to take place in my head, and I had to go to the record company and completely change up everything—including the budget, because this record was going to be more expensive to say the least! But while I was considering a solo record, I was listening to the piano playing of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, and writing down tunes that I liked, such as Evans’ “Peace Piece” and “B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine).” I thought it would be nice to compose something like that. So yes, I definitely I listen to other stuff to get inspired.

What are your recollections of recording with Steely Dan, and did any of that experience have an affect on your solo work?

I played on Aja a little bit—I think it was the title track and maybe one other song—and I also played on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I think it was four songs on that record. The funny thing about the Steely Dan guys is they used so many guitar players in those days, and you never knew if you made the cut until the record came out. I wasn’t really in that position because they always thought of me as a rhythm guy back then. But they would hire ten guitar players to play a solo, and you wouldn’t know which one they picked until you heard the record. They’re such important records, though, and all of us were such fans of those guys. A lot of people think that the second tune on this record, “Fat Back”—which I wrote in 1975 for my first album—sounds a bit like a Steely track, and that was probably true when I was writing it back then.

You dip into the Wes Montgomery realm on the song “Ooh Yeah,” and you’ve often said that he was your biggest influence. Did you also start out playing Gibsons because of him?

I first heard Wes when I was 12 years old, and I got to see him play and meet him when I was 14. I was so in love with Wes that my dad got me a used 1949 L-5, which we bought for $600 from a musician who was moving to Las Vegas. It’s a classic now and just an amazing guitar, and that’s what you’re hearing on “Ooh Yeah.” With Gibson some years ago, I developed my own L-5, which is based on my ’49’s neck, the Johnny Smith floating pickup, and the traditional L-5 tailpiece, but with a smaller body. It’s expensive because it’s made at the Custom Shop in Nashville, but it’s a fantastic guitar. The other guitar I used extensively on the record was a ’59 reissue Les Paul that the Custom Shop also built for me. It’s an incredible guitar that I’ll put it up against any real ’59. Mike McGuire, who recently retired from the Custom Shop, made it for me around 2009. I told him I wanted to get into a Les Paul because I was doing the 6 String Theory record with Robert Cray, Joe Bonamassa, Keb ’Mo’, and all these blues guys were going to be on the record, along with the jazz guys and rock guys. Mike had some woods that had been there for 15 years, and he said, “I’m going to do it right for you.” He took about three months to build the guitar, and it showed up to my studio in Los Angeles on the same day that Les Paul died. So that guitar was heaven sent from Les as far as I’m concerned. And talk about writing inspiration: I took the guitar out and ended up composing a tune on it called “LP” for that record. It was one of those songs that just appeared within minutes.

Did you record with the same amplifiers that you use live?

Most of the time for live playing I use two Fender Twin Reverbs and a Mesa/Boogie Road King in the center, but on this album something amazing happened: A friend of mine from Germany named Tom Riepl called me up one day and told me about this father and son outfit from Mississippi called Ladner, who were making these incredible boutique amps. They wanted to send me a couple to try, and I gave them the go-ahead because I trust Tom’s judgment about sounds, and he’s also a great guitar player. When these Ladner amps showed up they were so fantastic that I used them for the entire album. They’re built in the style of some of the ’70s amps, like the original Dumbles and the Jim Kelleys that I used to use, but they’re made like a Rolls Royce. And whether you’re playing them clean or dirty or full out, they’ve got just so much dynamic range and so much presence.

It sounds like you’re switching between a variety of effects too. Was that all done in real time?

Yes. I also thought it would be appropriate to get back into some of the tones I was using back in the earlier days, so I used a bunch of pedals, including an old Boss phaser, an Xotic Robotalk for some envelope filter stuff, a DigiTech Whammy, as well as some new toys, such as a rotary speaker pedal called the Mini Vent from Neo Instruments, a fantastic distortion pedal from Germany called a Rodenberg GAS, and three TC boxes—a Flashback delay, Hall of Fame reverb, and a Corona chorus. I had three pedalboards going at various times, and it was a lot of fun.

You have a guest guitarist on the album named Tony Pusztai, who I understand was the Grand Prize winner of your 6 String Theory competition.

Yes. One of the things I try to do with my Six String Theory competition [sixstringtheory.com] is to give some real-world experience to the winners. Last year they got to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where they got to head up all the jam sessions and open the show for me. Also, if I’m doing an album that year, the winner or winners get to perform a track with me on my record. In this case, the Grand Prize winner was Tony Pusztai, an amazing classical guitarist from Hungary. He played on “Waltz for Carmen,” which, of course, is a little more jazzy, but if you go on YouTube and look for Tony, you’ll hear some of his compositions and see him play classical guitar, and he’s just fantastic. So, other than some sort of award where the winners get something—the Berklee College of Music gives a four-year scholarship to each winner—I love giving the opportunities to do something substantial through the competition. It’s my way of giving back and mentoring a little bit, and helping people get rolling in their careers.