Smooth operator: A profile of American guitarist Lee Ritenour

One of the most versatile and gifted exponents of jazz guitar, Lee Ritenour is in his element when playing live, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 11:31am

American guitarist Lee Ritenour earned the nickname, "Captain Fingers", early in his career.

He played his first session in the late 1960s at the age of just 16 when he was invited to participate in a session with folk-rock favourites The Mamas and the Papas.

He found that he was in his element, and offers of work flooded in. By the time he'd turned 18, he was playing backup guitar for Tony Bennett and Lena Horne, and during the '70s he became one of the group of elite "first call" players working in the recording studios of Los Angeles.

Ritenour is estimated to have played on more than 3,000 sessions, for artists ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Frank Sinatra.

In an indication of his versatility as a guitarist, he has recorded with demanding jazz artists, including Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1979 his guitar work was featured on Pink Floyd's The Wall.

By the '80s he was becoming more focused on his career as a solo artist, which began with 1976's First Course. On that album he worked with his friend composer, arranger and pianist Dave Grusin, and they jointly pioneered the style known today as smooth jazz.

Ritenour later explored his interest in Brazilian music through albums such as 1979's Rio, and 1985's Grammy-winning Harlequin.

He and Grusin have also collaborated on classical recordings.

In addition to his prolific session work, Ritenour has recorded more than 40 albums as a solo artist or collaborator with musicians ranging from his old rival Larry Carlton to classical soprano Renée Fleming

A studio musician par excellence, Ritenour has always equally enjoyed performing live, and has toured extensively in the '90s notably with the so-called jazz supergroup Fourplay. Ritenour was a founding member, but left in 1997 after recording three albums with them.

Recent projects include 2010's Six String Theory set on which he played with peer guitarists such as Toto's Steve Lukather, influences such as George Benson and B.B. King, and younger players whom he is mentoring.

His most recent album, Rhythm Sessions, features him playing with both unknown musicians and prominent jazz players such as Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller.

Ritenour is currently touring as Lee Ritenour and Friends with bassist Tom Kennedy, drummer Roger Biwandu and keyboardist Jesse Milliner, and the Hong Kong performance takes place the day after the band's appearance at the Kuala Lumpur Jazz Festival.

Expect Ritenour's trademark combination of accessible melodies and hot jazz-funk solos tinged with Brazilian sunshine.


Lee Ritenour and Friends, September 15, 7.30pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$450 (includes one drink). Inquiries: 2521 2322