An Interview With Lee Ritenour
June 28, 1997
i.e. Music Studio
by Mark Ruffin
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How’s the little one?
RIT: Little Wes is fantastic. He’s on his way to New York. He’s been in Brazil with my wife. Carmen is down there working on a project.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How old is he now?
RIT: He’s gonna be four this month. He loves music. He’s got it in the blood.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Is your wife a musician too?
RIT: Not really. But being Brazilian, I think it’s also in the blood. They all play a little percussion and they all sing do music. When I’m down in Brazil, I’m always amazed just how much music is in the air down there.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Have you ever met Antonio Carlos Jobim?
RIT: Of course. My wife, curiously enough, went to high school with Tom Jobim’s wife Anna Jobim and they are the closest friends. So whenever Carmen goes to Brazil and go to Rio she usually stays at Anna house. I only met Jobim a couple times. I can certainly describe my first meeting with Brazil because it was very influential. I was 20 years old. I was at a party at Sergio Mendes house. Sergio had a recording studio in the back of his house and there was a lot of people there that night, and there was a jam session towards the end of the evening. Jobim was there and Dave Grusin was there and I’m not absolutely sure if that was the first time I met Dave, but I didn’t know Dave very well at that point either. I was doing some recording for Sergio Mendes so that’s why I was there, just starting into my career. Jobim was there and sat there and played a new composition that night that turned out to be Children’s Game that’s on the current Twist Of Jobim record.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: It’s on Portrait too, right?
RIT: Yes, I’ve covered that tune twice.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And Jobim played some piano….
RIT: Yeah, and I played some guitar and Dave played a little Fender Rhodes and Oscar Castro-Neves was playing some acoustic guitar and I think there was a drummer there Claudio Sloane. We had just a good old jam session, but mostly Jobim would sit there and play tunes for us and we all would just go gosh, that great.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did you play with him that night?
RIT: Sure. I forget what tunes we played. We all did a little jamming. It was something I’ve never forgot. I’ve met him once or twice since then at shows and different things but nothing like that first time.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: We know how you feel about him now. How did you feel about him then?
RIT: Very much the same. I grew up in the 60’s as a teen-ager and of course that was the first huge influence of Brazilian music in America with that infamous Stan Getz, Astrud & Joao Gilberto, Tom Jobim recording,. So the year I’m talking about was sometime in the early 70’s. By that time they had already hit the big wave of the bossa nova in the late 60’s, So to me the guy was already an idol because I already knew most of these great tunes that he had written. I had fallen in love with Brazilian music in general and his music as a teen-ager. I went to Brazil when I was 19, apparently it was in the blood pretty early on and later I married a Brazilian and a lot of my records have had a Brazilian feeling.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: When you went down there when you were 19, was that to tour?
RIT: No, that was just because I had fallen so much in love with the music and I had met some Brazilian musicians, Oscar Castro-Neves being one of them. He was the guitarist in Sergio’s band at the time and I decided, with a friend, to go down to Rio for a little vacation and that ended up being a very interesting trip as well because I bought my guitar, I ended up doing a little recording with Oscar Castro-Neves down there. I spent New Years Eve on the beach down there and going to several major Brazilian musicians houses. The Brazilians love to jam so in those days you jammed. It was an invitation that I couldn’t resist at the time to go down and it really wasn’t for anything specific, it was just a little holiday. I guess it was something I was really drawn to. It was great.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Why did you start a record company?
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Why throw caution, not to mention money to the wind?
RIT: Yeah, what a crazy idea.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Yes. Did you think because Dave Grusin got $40 million dollars you could get it too?
RIT: (Big laugh) I did it more from a musical point a view. I tend to be a little bit of a control freak. It’s interesting, as time goes on, I want more avenues for my music and the different things that I do in a musical capacity and I had two partners that sort of showed up on my doorstep that had been friends for many years, that it seemed to make sense. One of them was Mark Wexler who ran GRP Records for 11 years for Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, and from an artist point of view, he was the one that was the work-aholic, I mean Dave and Larry of course were too, but Mark was really the essence of how the day to day things got done at that company. And all the artists really appreciated him and he became a buddy. When he left GRP, we sort of just glanced off and said maybe we should do something ourselves one of these days. At the same time, Michael Faigen, another friend of ours who owns Jazziz magazine, started talking to Mark and the three of us put our heads together. What’s nice is the synergy in the areas that we cover.. I’m the music guy. Mark is the business guy, Michael is the multi-media and promotion type man. Between the three entities, we had an interesting synergy. At that point we looked for a partner and Polygram really opened up their doors and they’ve got a wonderful jazz staff over at Verve. So far it has turned out to be a terrific joint venture. It’s a tremendous amount of work. We’ve already come out with two albums and it’s not nearly enough.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What kind of work? Is it different from anything you thought it would be?
RIT: Probably not. In a Utopian sense, because I have such good business partners, I thought that I would mostly be involved with the music, but of course I’m involved in everything and that’s probably, ultimately, the way I wanted it anyway. I was also from a musical point of view looking to do two things. One I wanted to do more producing, but I didn’t want to do producing just for the sake of it, because a lot of people have asked me throughout the years and I’ve kind of shied away from it because I wanted to make sure I kept my artistry in tact and also my guitar playing. On the other hand, I felt myself drifting a little more towards production but I thought that if it was something on my own label, that there was a little extra emphasis and a extra degree of help I could lend. Also if I didn’t have time or I didn’t feel I was the right producer, I have the expertise to maybe suggest the right producer, go find the producer, find the right studio, find the right engineer, find the right combination of musicians or band. So you don’t have to be totally involved in every project, but you can be involved in the point that you help. I found this very intriguing. Also I wanted to develop some new artists. I think that’s very exciting, to get somebody from the ground up and then of course, work with some established people. On a personal front, it was very challenging and very desirable to eventually bring my recording career over to i.e. and make my own records there and have a little more control over as to what happens after the record is made.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: I remember a few years ago when we were talking and you were saying how when you first went to GRP, everything was basically done on a handshake. There was no contract until the company was bought, and then you had a contract.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: I heard that once you started i.e., that you were still under contract to GRP and that you couldn’t put your name on A Twist Of Jobim as the artist. Is that true?
RIT: It’s definitely been complicated. The situation with Tommy LiPuma and GRP…. Tommy is a wonderful person and he has been very understanding that I wanted to go do this with my own label and at Polygram. At the same time, I’m still a GRP recording artist. I have a live album coming out. I’m very happy about that project, because that was Tommy’s idea. He loves live albums, he’s been involved with many of them as a producer and he encouraged it and I found the right band and the right combination of material I think to put on that album. At the same time we worked it out that the next studio album is going to be on i.e. and then the arrangement is for me to go back to GRP and do another project for them as well. Right now, I’m definitely splitting my personality and sharing between the two labels. It is a little complicated at times, contractually. The jazz business is very funny because everyone just in any business is competitive. Meanwhile we’re rooting for my live record at GRP and I’m rooting for Dave Grusin’s Mancini album, meanwhile Twist of Jobim is killing over here at i.e. There’s sort of a competition of course naturally, but there’s a very nice relationship, because I totally respect Tommy and he totally respects me and he and Mark Wexler had become very good friends and he’s very good friends with Michael Faigen, so the jazz business is too small a business to have too many enemies. (Laughs) What’s nice is that we have a bunch of good friends and I couldn’t ask for a nicer guy in Tommy LiPuma.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So it’s very amenable for you?
RIT: I think that if GRP had their druthers, I’m sure they’d been happier if I’d just stuck there. But they understand that I had a chance to grow and I wasn’t going to have my own record company within GRP, that structure wasn’t there, and the Polygram people offered the situation and it worked out well. It even gets more complicated, I belong to this group called Fourplay which is at Warner Brothers.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Yeah, man, you’re sort of like George Clinton at his height, a contract at every major label.
RIT: (Laughs) I didn’t mean for that to happen. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Lee, you’re on three labels, isn’t that a conflict of interest?
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Well, wouldn’t it had been easy just to get some live tracks together and just give it to GRP to satisfy the deal?
RIT: I don’t think the record sounds like that. I certainly didn’t do that and would never do that. First of all, it was Tommy’s suggestion to do the live record and I thought it was a good one because there’s one interesting fact about this album is that I have 25 solo albums, I’ve never done a live record. That’s why Tommy is such a great producer. He came up with the idea for Dave Grusin to do the Mancini tribute. I think that was a very clever idea because Dave was very influenced by Henry Mancini. They’re both great film composers. Dave is very close to Mancini’s wife Jenny and I think Dave has a great infinity for Mancini’s music and knew how to handle it and I think Tommy saw that. So, I think that was a very nice idea. Likewise, there’s a lot of live albums out there and people come and go with live project and for some reason, there’s some kind of misnomer in the industry that people put out live albums when they’re sort of in-between their regular projects. That’s not the way it used to be with live albums. Live albums used to be a very serious endeavor for an artist in their career, because it shows a whole other side of the artist. So I’ve never gotten to show that so I put a lot of work and effort into this album and sonically, it’s recorded almost like a studio record, and I picked a very interesting combination of musicians in Bill Evans, Alan Pasqua, and Sonny Emory. There’s a great blend of what I like in contemporary jazz and straight ahead jazz together.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: I’m really surprised you got Dave Grusin to tour. How long is this tour you’re about to embark on?
RIT: The tour for me stretches quite a bit because we’re going to Europe for three and half weeks, but the U.S. tour is just about 14 shows, in all the major cities, and Dave is doing almost all of those. It’s a pleasure to get him back out on the road because we really, other than these one off specialty shows that occasionally we do, he’s never really gone on a tour since about 1985, when we had Harlequin out.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: How’d you get him to do it?
RIT: We’re buddies and he loved playing on A Twist Of Jobim and I think he felt proud about his Mancini project and the schedule is really not too hard and he had a little bit of time in June so I caught him at the right moment. In general, he doesn’t like to go on the road too much. There was one European tour we did one year where, the European tours are always so difficult because you do 20 one-nighters in 20 different countries, and that one practically killed him. (Laughs) That was pretty much the end of it. I promised him that this wasn’t going to be like that.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: There’s a lot of real positive things to talk to you about in the making of A Twist Of Jobim, but there’s one real sad note, and that was it was the last recording of Art Porter.
RIT: It was actually Mark Wexler who suggested him because Art was on Verve/Forecast and when I was looking for a soprano player to accompany El DeBarge on that tune, I was actually thinking soprano or maybe alto, and Mark said what about Art Porter. I said that’s interesting, but I don’t really know him that well. I’ve met him, he’s opened for me on a show or two. He said he would be great on that tune. So, we arranged it and we flew him out here and he was so nervous, and he’s such a sweet guy. He was nervous because it was the first time he had worked with me in the studio and he wanted it to be right. It was so right. Like the first take was good enough. I think we did two more and it took all of a half-hour and he had such a sweet sound. And it turned out to be his last recording. It was so shocking that he had that accident, but he left a small legacy and it’s here and there’s such beautiful playing on that track.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Who else kind of nailed things for you and made the album easier?
RIT: There was so many different kinds of people that did the project. Oleta Adams came in and just nailed her stuff very easily. Almost all the musicians, you know the Christian McBride’s , the Ernie Watts’ the Alan Pasqua’s, the Harvey Mason’s they nailed the stuff very easily. But some people like to take more time, Dave is like in the middle. He likes to get inside the thing and work it a little bit, take his time, but not too much. Al Jarreau on the other hand, he works late at night. He only warms up about three in the morning. You’ve got to hang with Al. We’ve got to hang, talk, just get into the music and just vibe it out and around four o’clock in the morning is when the good stuff comes out with him and I’m not quite the night bird anymore so it was like okay, but he’s another great artist. Everybody was totally different. Art Porter nailed it in a few minutes and Oleta the same way. Other people took more time. But I’m used to giving that time because I can definitely take my time to do it too. Sometimes, I’ll get things on the first take but sometimes I find myself still tweaking something hours later.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Are you going to have vocalists on the tour?
RIT: We did get El DeBarge for the West Coast, El was not available for that mid-west swing. Vesta Williams is singing with us because Oleata Adams was in the studio doing a record so she was not available, so Vesta is singing. And then we have a new Brazilian artist that we’re signing to i.e., a young lady who’s a very interesting artist named Badi Assad. She’s a Brazilian artist. I actually didn’t even know she was Brazilian when I first heard her, bur she’s an incredible classical guitar player with incredible classical guitar chops. She sings like a bird, she looks beautiful and she plays very different. She’ll do things where she’ll play the guitar rhythm with her left hand from a very unusual rhythm. She’ll start playing the body of the guitar as a percussion instrument with her right hand or playing her face or playing her body as a percussion instrument, and at the same time, singing a melody. Sometimes, she’ll play a percussion instrument with her right hand and play the guitar with her left hand and sing a third melody. Some of it is actually kind of avant-garde. It’s very different. She’s going to be on the tour opening up and also joining us in the middle of the show.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Speaking of folks on i.e., I know you have Eric Marienthal, anything else in the future?
RIT: We’re talking to Miss Vesta, it’s not a done deal yet, but we’re talking. You know she did a song on Eric Marienthal’s new record. A great version of Until You Come Back To Me.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: What about Fourplay?
RIT: This is a Lee Ritenour year for recordings because I’ve got them coming out all over the place. Fourplay coming out right around the corner with a best of album with two new tracks. One of the new tracks is with Take Six and it’s the Stevie tune Higher Ground. Harvey Mason, our drummer, did most of the production on it and then there’s a new tune of mine that’s also on the recording. It seems a little early for a best of after only three albums but again, that group has a problem getting together and a lot of it these days has to do with my schedule. (laughs) Hopefully, we’ll get together early next year for a new recording.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: You know one of my favorite solos of yours was on a early Patrice Rushen album called Before The Dawn. I can think of countless others, after all of these sessions, is it over 2,000 or something…
RIT: You know there was this Japanese fan about six years ago, a Japanese fan came up to me in Tokyo one day and he said I’d like to give you something Mr. Ritenour and I said ok. I figured it was a tape or a photo I was going to sign and he pulled out this book almost and it was pages after pages of everything I’ve ever recorded and it added up to almost 3,000 sessions. I looked at it and I don’t think he missed anything. I think it was all there. I had my dad put it in a scrapbook.(laughs)
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Any memorable sessions in any of those?
RIT: I love to tell this story to my friends, I’ve never told it in an interview. One night we were recording George Benson’s album Give Me The Night and Quincy was producing. This was many years ago and the cast of characters in that room was George playing guitar, I was playing rhythm guitar. We had Harvey Mason. We had Louis Johnson on bass. We had Greg Phillanganes and we also had Ray Parker Jr. So there was a bunch of guitar players and Herbie (Hancock) was playing piano that night. It was quite a cast of people. I forget which song we recorded that night, but Quincy said, Stevie Wonder is coming down later. He wrote a song for George and he’s coming down around midnight. So we’ll finish this song and we’ll have some dinner and wait for Stevie. Okay, great. So we all wait. We wait, we wait. Now it’s two o’clock in the morning, then three. They get a call,’Stevie’s coming, just wait.’ Now Quincy’s real nervous because he’s got all these expensive musicians who are on the clock here and we’re all just hanging out doing nothing. Finally, Stevie Wonder shows up. He shows up with this huge entourage, so then you got to hang out for an hour. Now it’s four o’clock in the morning and Quincy finally get Stevie over to the piano. ‘Stevie come on, show the guys your song. Let’s do your song.’ And so Stevie walks over to the piano and everyone’s anxious to here the song and Stevie sits down. He starts to play the song. He starts the intro and man it sounds great. He stops after the intro and he says ‘Q, what do you think man?’ And Q says ‘aw man that’s beautiful Stevie, go on.’ And Stevie says ‘well give me a few more minutes and I’ll finish the tune.’ (big laughter) You should have seen the look on Quincy’s face. We were on the floor man. .
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Well as a producer, I hope you’re never faced with anything like that.
RIT: (laughter) Maybe Q could afford it, but I can’t. That was the end of that session.