6 String Theory

Lee Ritenour

Concord Records, 2010

http://www.leeritenour.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/30/2010

Session superstar and contemporary jazz artist Lee Ritenour is one of the most widely respected guitarists of his generation; that goes without saying.  But if proof was required, you could hardly do better than simply running your eye down the roster of players who showed up when Ritenour decided to celebrate 50 years of playing guitar by producing, arranging and playing on an all-star album featuring many of his favorite guitarists.

Maybe the most amazing thing about the list of luminaries who played on this album is that it ranges so far from Ritenour’s typical genre of contemporary jazz; you’ve got everyone from mainline jazzmen like John Scofield to hard rocker Slash (Guns ‘n’ Roses), pop-rocker Neal Schon (Journey), country picker Vince Gill, blues legend B.B. King, prog shredder Guthrie Govan, and young acoustic prodigies Joe Robinson (fingerstyle) and Shon Boubil (classical).

It seems that people don’t just respect Lee Ritenour—they like the guy. 

Further proof of the latter lies in this simple fact.  In 2010, deep into the ProTools age, most of these cuts were tracked live in the studio with all of the players present.  Sure, a handful of folks like Japan’s Tomayasu Hotei did not make it to Los Angeles for the sessions, but the vast majority did, so that they could play in the same room with their fellow musicians and hang with Lee.

What emerges from this mutual lovefest is an album of almost unimaginable variety, held together really by two things: the tracks all showcase guitar, and the people playing on them all liked and respected Lee Ritenour enough to want to be on this album.  Those common elements aside, the album careens and careers from genre to genre in a way that’s both disorienting and energizing, and ultimately delivers on what it promises—a vast smorgasbord of guitar, virtually all of it memorable, much of it delightful. 

The opening track might fool you into thinking that this album is going to consist of guitarists sitting in with Lee on a series of fusion-y contemporary jazz tunes, as Scofield and Ritenour trade nimble licks on the very tasty “Lay It Down.”  But you’re almost immediately thrown a curveball, as that track melts into “Am I Wrong,” featuring bluesmen Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal trading scruffy vocals over a funky-delicious blues guitar dialogue.

“L.P. (For Les Paul)” finds Ritenour, Pat Martino and Joey DeFrancesco trading sinuous jazz licks over a skittering rhythm section in a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats—and then they’re off to explore the far corners of the musical universe once again.  One of the most unexpected and delightfully successful pairings is “hard blues” young gun Joe Bonamassa and smooth blues veteran Robert Cray delivering a fiery, inspired take on folk-rocker Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason”—it’s soulful,  gritty and passionate, with some sizzling, Stevie Ray Vaughan-ish soloing from Bonamassa.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“68” and “In Your Dreams” are great examples of the range not just of this album but of the players on it.  These consecutive tracks each feature a trio of guitarists, with two of the three remaining the same on both—Steve Lukather (Toto) and Neal Schon (Journey).  The first adds Slash to the mix, while the second adds Ritenour himself… and the two tracks are miles apart.  “68” is all about flash, a muscular statement that’s fusion verging on power metal, whereas “In Your Dreams” is an appropriately dreamy blues.  Everywhere that the former is sharp and aggressive, the latter is restrained and contemplative.

And then along comes Mr. Fluid Elegance himself (Jazz Division; Steve Howe owns that title in the Rock Division), Mr. George Benson, smooth like glass and sweet like honey. All I have to say is, damn.

With Benson as the appetizer, the main course turns out to be “Why I Sing The Blues,” six and a half minutes of blues magic that features the mind-blowing succession of B.B. King, Vince Gill, Keb’ Mo’, Jonny Lang and Ritenour himself.  The first four all take a verse at the mike, all five take a solo, and every one of them manages to sound both genuinely bluesy and like they’re having a ridiculous amount of fun.  Gill in particular shows his range and why he belongs.

From B.B. King in his eighties you transition to 18-year-old  Australian fingerstyle guitarist Joe Robinson blistering his way through the light-speed-to-Endor track “Daddy Longlicks”; the dude is flying. Whereupon Lukather, Ritenour and Andy McKee decamp with an oh-so-elegant cover of Sting’s classically-undertoned “Shape Of My Heart.” That, folks, is range.

Next up, Ritenour, Japanese guitar hero Tomoyasu Hotei and LA jazzman Mike Stern launch a full frontal assault Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam,” a fusion axeman’s dream if ever there was one.  The trio does not disappoint, although the track does remind you what a genius Beck is and make you wish he’d been able to participate.  Speaking of full frontal assaults, “Fives” finds Guthrie Govan and Beck’s erstwhile bass player, the very talented Tal Wilkenfield, riffing in a herky-jerky meter that leaves space for Govan to go wild with speed-riffing and intricate patterns.

“Fives” also inspired a great piece of dialogue narrated in the illuminating liner notes.  It seems Joe Bonamassa was in the control room waiting his turn while Govan was playing his gonzo piece. Their subsequent by-play went like this.  Bonamassa: “Man, I didn’t play that many notes all last year.”  Govan: “Yeah, but you played the right ones.”  Which is the perfect summation of the ethos of this project: these players all respect each other and respect the instrument.

The album closes out on a somewhat bizarre note fashioned by Ritenour’s own imagination.  As part of the project, Ritenour staged a competition in conjunction with the recording of the album, and so the album finishes with Govan’s shredding followed by 18-year-old contest winner Shon Boubil playing a sublime classical guitar etude, a track that both extends the album’s musical breadth to the breaking point and proves Boubil a deserving winner.

Lee Ritenour’s 6 String Theory is a showcase for the instrument more than the man, but Rit wouldn’t have it any other way.  And his friends… well, they do know just a little bit about entertaining an audience.

Rating: A-

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