The Best at the Beginning
In the early ‘90s, music critics created the label “acid jazz” to define the fusion of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. British guitarist Ronny Jordan was among the young guns at the forefront of the “acid jazz” movement thanks to his funky cover of the Miles Davis tune “So What”, which reminded many of a breezin’ George Benson doing his best Wes Montgomery with production assistance from Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B. Jordan’s version featured an acoustic piano solo and double bass alongside the guitar, synths, and drum programming that was largely standard for him, but the sound is still compact and remix ready for the clubs.
Between 1975-1977, when Lee Ritenour was producing his first two albums (First Course and Captain Fingers) for Epic Records, there wasn’t a succinct classification for this evolving music. Ritenour’s sound perplexed studio executives because it wasn’t “jazz fusion” in the style of Miles’s Bitches Brew, nor was it rock oriented like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishu Orchestra efforts or Chick Corea’s Return to Forever classics. This was melodic rhythm and blues based jazz, and Ritenour had a sizable cadre of likeminded associates in Benson, the Jazz Crusaders, David Sanborn, and Larry Carlton who were following the same path.
The tracks on The Best of Lee Ritenour are culled from his first two releases and make a strong argument for including Ritenour among the forefathers of “acid jazz”, despite the missing ingredient of hip-hop. Ritenour was already an established session player by the time First Course was recorded with proven jazz chops, so there was less need for him to cover a jazz classic like Jordan. So, he simply focused on creating music that he loved despite there being no radio format ready to accept it. As he recalls in the liner notes for The Best of, “It took another ten years before the ‘WAVE’ type radio stations were established to play this kind of music and another ten years before they were considered mainstream.”
Now, of course, mainstream jazz has become “smooth”, which seems a somewhat inevitable trajectory for the style. But Ritenour’s playing on the theme from Three Days of the Condor features a loose, cinematic statement with an original arrangement that wouldn’t need much assistance from a crafty contemporary producer to transform it into a sleek, after hours anthem. The same is largely true for “A Little Bit of This and a Little Bit of That”, which would benefit mightily from a little less of the blaringly overcooked R&B horn arrangement by Michael O’Martian.
Oddly, it is the R&B sweeteners that Ritenour and primary rhythm & horn arranger Dave Grusin use that lead the sound down the smooth path. Especially when on the Stevie Wonder cover “Isn’t She Lovely”, the chunky rhythm guitar riffs of Ray Parker, Jr. are combined with the ever-so earnestly unfunky vocals of Chicago member Bill Champlin. The strain of funk that influenced “acid jazz” is not the relatively smooth sounds of disco that provide the sugary highs on many of these highlights.
On the Antonio Carlos Jobim penned “Ohla Maria (Amparo)”, Ritenour and Grusin display a light, deft touch that allows Ritenour’s classical guitars to soar beautifully on an ethereal wave of piano and synthesizers. The track is thoughtful and dreamy without drifting into airy new age.
It is safe to say that Ritenour is proud of the trail he has blazed since 1975. While much of the music inspired by Ritenour and his compatriots is by no means a revolutionary call to arms, the best of his early days begot formats, which in turn, begot even more stylistic excursions. I suppose we owe him for daring to be smooth.