Bluenotes: 'Rhythm Sessions' by Lee Ritenour and 'Esprit de Four' by Fourplay
Before Fourplay performed in Hong Kong back in 2006, I asked founder and keyboard player Bob James how the group had changed when guitarist Lee Ritenour left and Larry Carlton replaced him.
James' predictable response was that they were both great musicians with unique contributions to make, but went on to say he thought Ritenour had perhaps come to regret his decision to leave.
Maybe so, but despite the excellence of the musicians involved, Fourplay - now riding high in the Billboard jazz chart with their latest album, Esprit de Four on Heads Up - often seem to add up to less than the sum of their parts.
True, Esprit de Four is doing better in the Billboard chart than Ritenour's latest, Rhythm Sessions, but not by that much, and their original guitarist has made much the better of the two albums.
Rhythm Sessions, on Concord, seems to be a sequel to his last for the same label, 2010's 6 String Theory, which featured an all-star cast of guitarists who collectively covered a wide variety of styles.
There was also newcomer Shon Boublil, a 16-year-old Canadian who had won a guitar competition Ritenour organised in 2009. In subsequent years Ritenour expanded the 6 String Theory Competition's remit to include rhythm section players, and for this album has called in a mixture of new talent he has discovered that way to perform alongside famous friends.
Among the established musicians featured on these sessions are keyboard players Chick Corea, George Duke and Dave Gruisin, and bassists Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Fourplay's Nathan East.
Newcomers include Ritenour's 19-year-old drummer son, Wesley, and, from the competition winners, keyboardist Hans de Wild, pianist Demetrius Nabors, bassist Michael Feinberg and drummer Selim Munir.
"I always thought it's a very cool model to combine very well-known, almost legendary players with completely new talent on the same record," says Ritenour. "I love that scenario … I've always considered it a fascinating experiment, and a way to create some great sounds."
He says the tunes here - a mixture of stylistically varied originals and covers - were intended to work in an "organic" way with the other players on each track and that he either composed or selected them with specific combinations of musicians in mind.
Son Wesley apparently introduced Ritenour to the late Esbjorn Svensson's music, and two of the Swedish pianist's compositions are here: 800 Street by Feet, for which he is backed by Wesley and Christian McBride on bass; and Spam Boo Limbo featuring John Beasley on piano, and Jeff Beck's former rhythm section of Tal Wilkenfeld on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
Other tracks come from the songbooks of Gruisin, Corea, even Welsh rock band Stereophonics.
This is an engagingly varied set on which, as on 6 String Theory, Ritenour seems content to leave much of the solo space to other players, but when he does step into the spotlight he plays with his customary taste and authority.
The Fourplay album suggests that Loeb, whose session and production career in many ways parallels those of Ritenour and Carlton, has settled comfortably into the role, but there isn't much to the music here, and I rather miss the bluesy edge Carlton brought to the party.
Both these albums will probably be filed under "smooth jazz", but the Ritenour album less deservedly so.
Three albums from the triumvirate of Fourplay guitarists.
- Wes Bound (GRP, 1993): it's hard to say what Bob Marley's Waiting in Vain is doing on an album which is ostensibly Ritenour's tribute to Wes Montgomery, but this is otherwise a worthwhile exercise in getting to grips with his legacy without too slavishly imitating his sound.
- Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia (335 Records, 2010): Carlton's first solo album post-Fourplay finds him exploring the Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff songbook in soulful style. It's a bit short at less than 40 minutes, but catches the spirit of those early 1970s singles perfectly. Readers might remember pianist Tony DeSare for his stint at the Captain's Bar of the Mandarin Oriental in 2006.
- Plain 'N' Simple (Tweety Records, 2011): exactly what the title tells you, and none the worse for that. Chuck Loeb takes time out from the Fourplay gig, bringing the band's drummer Harvey Mason along for the ride, for a blues-based organ trio jazz set which features Pat Bianchi on the keys and pedals. Some fine funky playing which retains the rough edges smoothed away on Esprit de Four.