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Artist’s Choice: Lee Ritenour on His 1970s Influences

The guitarist raves about McLaughlin, Benson, Miles and more

Mahavishnu Orchestra 1972
Mahavishnu Orchestra's first publicity photo, 1972: Jerry Goodman, Billy Cobham, John McLaughlin, Rick Laird and Jan Hammer (from left). Courtesy of Jawbone Press
Eric Gale of Stuff
Lee Ritenour (photo by Rob Shanahan)
Lee Ritenour (photo by Rob Shanahan)

For my new album, A Twist of Rit, I wrote four new tunes. But I also went back and twisted and flipped some tunes of mine that are 40 years old, and recorded them live in the studio with a 12-piece band. They weren’t necessarily my hits, but songs that I felt were still relevant. The reason I thought about doing this type of project is because some of the funkier music out there today-Snarky Puppy, Robert Glasper Experiment-sounds to me like a lot of the stuff we were doing in the ’70s. These tracks I’ve chosen were all important to me during that time.

Miles Davis

“Right Off”
Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971)

This features John McLaughlin on guitar, and it was an interesting period for John because he never played this way again in his entire career. He’s still playing with that amazing technique and fire, but some of the stuff he was doing with Miles was pretty funky. “Right Off” was particularly influential for me-I loved the sound that he got and the way he played so rhythmically. Miles wasn’t going commercial, and he still encouraged everyone to play out and do what they wanted to do, but he wanted everybody to be really cognizant of the rhythm and the grooves. So this album was one of the few times I heard McLaughlin pull out these rhythmic chops, combined with his Godzilla chops and his interesting note selection. He was really the center of the recording.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin

“Vital Transformation”
The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)

I tried to learn this track when I was a teenager and I said, “What the hell?” Up until that time we were used to odd time signatures more along the lines of Dave Brubeck and “Take Five,” in 5, or a tune in 7. This was the first tune I had heard in 4 1/2 or 9/8. It was so fresh and it took me forever to figure out what they were doing-I scratched up the vinyl. Decades later, I was doing an album called Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors, and I wrote a song called “4 1/2 Storms.” My son was getting into Mahavishnu at the time, and he said, “Hey, Dad, your tune is this Mahavishnu tune.” I said, “Ah, fuck.” I wrote John an e-mail and explained what happened, but he said, “It’s flattering. Forget it.”

Billy Cobham

Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)

Not only had Billy done all that groundbreaking work with Mahavishnu, but he was a great jazz drummer, playing on a lot of CTI records. He wasn’t just this incredible chops guy-he was very versatile, the drummer at the time. But on his own albums he was also a terrific writer. “Stratus” was a great groove and a great tune, and then it had a great guitar solo from Tommy Bolin using a tight delay, almost like a rockabilly sound. It’s a very unusual solo against the groove Billy was setting up.

George Benson

“Body Talk”
Body Talk (CTI, 1973)

George was at the top of his game in the ’70s, as far as his guitar playing; he also had an extraordinary guitar sound. Body Talk was kind of a precursor to his more commercial LPs, and the recording, made by the CTI guys at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, sounds incredible. His time on this track, his choice of chords, his intonation, his ideas, his sound, are insane. And he plays amazing stuff over the top of the tune.

Joe Pass

“Here’s That Rainy Day”
Virtuoso (Pablo, 1973)

I took a couple of guitar lessons from Joe Pass-everybody was in the phone book in those days, and you could just call them up. He, along with Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall and Howard Roberts, were my jazz guitar influences. On Virtuoso he changed his style from a single-note, rhythm-section-type guy to this chord-and-melody guy. “Here’s That Rainy Day” has more of an electric-guitar sound than the rest of the album, which has that sweet jazz-guitar sound that he’s known for; it also has a fantastic arrangement and performance.


Stuff (Warner Bros., 1976)

I’d already done sessions with Stuff’s guitarists, Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree, and as a young studio musician they were a huge influence. Eric doesn’t get enough credit. He supported everybody’s records-Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, Dave Grusin. He always came up with soulful rhythm parts and short solos-all the right stuff with amazing feeling. All of the guys in Stuff were tremendous rhythm players and Eric was also an excellent soloist, a cross between a blues and jazz guitar player. “Foots” had all of those elements, and it was heavy on the pocket, the groove. Their style was very identifiable and hasn’t been recreated since.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Lee Ritenour is a revered contemporary jazz and session guitarist, and was a founding member of Fourplay. His new album, A Twist of Rit, is being released on July 31 by Concord Records. Originally Published