Here is a philosophical question for you. Which is worse: something that is partly good, or something that is uniformly awful?
Please allow guitarist Lee Ritenour to bring this dilemma to life for you.
First, please understand that Mr. Ritenour is no Plato. His nickname is, um, “Captain Fingers” because he is fleet on the fret board. Still, he is eminently qualified to assay this conundrum.
The Finger King plays his guitar for a living, having made some 3,000 studio dates since the age of 16 when he played for the Mommas and the Poppas. Now, 3,000 music producers can’t be wrong (at least, you know, not all of them), so Ritenour can play. And yet—and here you will see his philosophical qualifications begin to emerge—he has made a string of forgettable and mushy-mouthed music in the style that has come to be called Jazz Smooooove, that concoction of instrumental R&B, Velveeta, and Snickers bars firmly identified with saxophonists of the surname “G”.
So, to summarize: fine musician, YET, maker of much lightweight fuzak.
Then, witness: Mr. Ritenour, who is more than capable of making a vapid album for you, will produce one of initial promise, only to have it fritter away into self-indulgent mumbo-jumbo, causing you to ask yourself: “Is it worse for an artist incapable of making a good album to do what he must, OR for an artist who really knows better to make something half-passable?”
Overtime is billed as an all-star gathering, a theater-in-the-round living room concert, and a career retrospective, as Ritenour gathers players from across the spectrum of his career to make a single disc. To prove that he knows the difference between right and wrong, the leader starts with the good, if not great, stuff. Like all dutiful smoove guitarists, Ritneour begins each day with a fix of Wes Montgomery, and his take on “Boss City” is all mellow octaves and swiftly bent blue notes, even if the popped electric bass is something Wes wouldn’t have recognized. Even better, Ritenour moves on to a nine-minute “Blue in Green” accompanied by Dave Grusin’s acoustic piano and Ernie Watts’s tenor sax. Ritenour plays sensitively and with a rich, understated melodic sense.
And this promising start is more than a mere tease. Mr. Ritenour’s own “Ocean Ave” swings nicely, allowing him to play daring double-time figures, and allowing Mr. Watts to enter on a suddenly triple-metered section. As the set moves into a Brazilian number, Ivan Lins’s “She Walks This Earth” (featuring the composer’s singing), you would be excused for anticipating trouble, but it remains a darn nice record, with Mr. Lins being floated on a cloud of samba groove. It’s terrific—building in intensity as Ritenour takes one of his Steely Dan-ish guitar solos, then hands things back over to Lins’s dusty, straight-up singing.
So, the Philosopher Guitarist has you set up. Four songs in and this is a good, if spotty and unoriginal, jazz guitar record.
“Sugarloaf Express” begins the doubting—a fleet-of-finger tune over a happy-Latin groove. Still, it’s fun, and there remains a remarkably fine sense of restraint covering the project: no dopey background singers, no tricked-out synth sounds, no string section or cop-out studio fade. Just so you don’t miss the point, Mr. Ritenour does everything but stand on ladder in midtown and scream: “I can play zesty and tasteful jazz guitar. REALLY!”
But it can’t last. Next up is a three-song sub-set featuring vocalist Kenya Hathaway. Her own tune, “Possibilities” is a slice of tasteful neo-soul that gives Lee a chance to play some acoustic guitar in the breaks. Ms. Hathaway sounds great—easy and natural and intimate—though it seems fair to ask what her work has to do with a jazz guitar record. Next, she stars on a version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” that uses smoove jazz pretty boy Chris Botti on the trumpet part. Mr. Botti’s solos are about half as cool as the singing, tracing echoey pseudo-Miles-isms one moment, and flubbing ragged runs when he has to trade licks with Ritenour. The crowd in the studio loves it, because, you know, it’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, but it’s just an imitation. Completing the vocal trilogy is Ritenour’s “Morning Glory”, a pleasant ditty that probably comes as close as a live track can to studio perfection. Harvey Mason, Anthony Jackson, and Steve Forman play locked-tight, mid-tempo funk-lite, and Dave Grusin’s acoustic piano blends with Patrice Rushen’s Fender Rhodes to recreate the ‘70s so faithfully that you want to bug Democratic Headquarters all over again. But it’s empty calories, and you know it. It’s not bad, it’s just… so what?
Next up is a suite of show-off fusion. “Captain Fingers” is Ritenour’s trademark tune, a whiz-bang exercise for Rushen, Watts, and Ritenour to demonstrate chops and daring unison playing that is as clinically devoid of feeling as a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. “P.A.L.S.” tops it with Corea-esque pseudo-Spanish complexity. Then “Night Rhythms” brings in Eric Marienthal’s sax for a smoover sound, and Melvin Davis’s electric bass for an endless popping lesson. Again, I must stress: All this music is realized with skillful—even tasteful—professionalism. The philosophical point is pressed by Professor Fingers at every turn: “I have the chops to make great music, but I only made mediocre music! How will you judge me?” Ponder the last two tunes, grasshoppers.
“Lil’ Bumpin’” is a Wes Montgomery tribute—a fact signaled by Ritenour’s use of octave playing on his Gibson L5. Despite this, the tune remains radio-friendly and synthed out, achieving an alchemic mixture of real jazz-cred and dentist office availability. The closer brings Ms. Hathaway (and vocalist Grady Harrell) back on stage for “Is It You?”, a romantically hopeful, flute-infused platter of soul Crème Brule. The fake synth strings and synth brass sounds are all there, and by now—if you are any student of philosophy at all—your conclusion is in hand.
So? Which is worse: clueless smoove jazz cheese from beginning to end, or Overtime, a disc that demonstrates how a fine musician can turn slowly to the dark side?
Here are your blue books. You may begin writing.