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Concert Preview - Lee Ritenour

By Mark Towns
Published: January 16 1997, Houston Press

Back in 1990, Houston was one of a handful of stops for the JVC jazz festival, which featured icons such as Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and George Benson. Also on the bill was Lee Ritenour, a less-hallowed guitarist whose ace band of top studio talent nonetheless nearly stole the show from the headliners.

That was six years ago. Today, Ritenour is close to becoming a legendary draw in his own right. Certainly, his Hollywood upbringing -- not to mention his studies with masters such as Christopher Parkening, Joe Pass and Howard Roberts -- has helped turn him into an accomplished showman. No doubt, Ritenour has the chops; think Jeff Beck by way of George Benson and you've come close to understanding his approach. Even when Ritenour is playing it slick, he does so with sophisticated licks.

In the early '70s, a year after touring with Sergio Mendes, a 21-year-old Ritenour began his recording career as a first-call studio guitarist. His work has graced soundtracks for Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver and An Officer and a Gentleman, among others; he's also been part of studio efforts from the likes of Pink Floyd, Sonny Rollins, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder.

The genesis of Ritenour's career as a solo artist came in 1976, with the release of First Course. That funkified effort has been followed by 19 other releases, among them 1977's classic Captain Fingers, which featured George Duke; 1985's Grammy-winning Harlequin; and 1988's Brazilian-influenced Festival, which went to number one on both the jazz and adult contemporary charts. A more recent Ritenour highlight was 1990's no-frills jazz offering Stolen Moments, which garnered him the respect he had lacked among jazz purists, who had bemoaned his more polished leanings.

Lately, Ritenour has returned to a more democratic creative environment with Fourplay, an all-star side project that includes Bob James, Nathan East and Harvey Mason. In 1992, Fourplay scored a crossover hit when they recruited R&B vocalists El DeBarge and Patti Labelle to lend vocals to Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance," a tune that received extensive airplay on urban radio stations around the country.

For the moment, Fourplay is on hiatus. So Ritenour is currently leading another powerhouse touring band instead, one whose best-known player is probably former Miles Davis saxophonist Bill Evans. Filling out the lineup are Hilary Jones on drums, Melvin Davis on bass and Barnaby Finch on keyboards. And while there's never any question that guitarist Ritenour is the center of attention, you never know who in the supporting cast might turn out to be the next big thing. In judging talent, as in his playing, Ritenour's taste is impeccable.

Lee Ritenour performs at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, January 16 and 17, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $25 to $50. For info, call 869-TICS.

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