I'm decidedly in the less is more camp when it comes to certain projects. Too much studio wizardry is never a good thing. Carefully crafted music creates its own kind of magic that has no need for aural sleight of hand. That's just a lack of confidence, which in the case of the classic Motown hits, is completely unwarranted thanks to solid lyrics from the likes of Barrett Strong & Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder (to name a few of the credited songwriters) and the stellar musicianship of the Funk Brothers. When your backing band sounds this good, all the producer and the recording engineer need to do is simply make sure the equipment's running properly.
Obviously, contemporary jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour would disagree with me on that count and since he was fortunate enough to do some session work with James Jamerson when he was a young pup, Ritenour may feel he's earned the right to tweak the original arrangements on A Twist of Motown, his latest in a series of tributes to some of the defining sounds of the late 20th century. Ritenour's own smooth jazz style borrows heavily from rhythm and blues, so it would seem that this twist would infuse Motown's R&B with a little more jazz, but that almost presumes that the Funk Brothers weren't playing after-hours gigs in jazz clubs trying to earn a few extra bucks to complement the pocket change they were taking home from their day job with Motown.
Since there was already jazz in the mix, Ritenour brings his smooth production values, not exactly a light twist. Ritenour perpetually holds a teaspoon in one hand and a five-pound bag of sugar in the other. I must admit, sometimes even a blind squirrel gets a nut as in the case of the Temptations staple "Just My Imagination". This contemporary reworking full of shimmering, softly cascading effects leans more on R&B over jazz, but Will Downing's pure loverman lead and overdubbed background vocals keep the track from floating away. "The Tracks of My Tears" with Brenda Russell handling vocal chores is another understated gem.
Although when the proceedings get overcrowded such as on the Stevie Wonder penned "You Haven't Done Nothin'", Lord, how badly can things get? Wonder's tunes always seem to inspire the worst instincts in the most well-intentioned performers. It makes you wonder how Stevie got it so right back in the day. On this twist, the guitar work is too amped, the rhythm has way too much bounce and the horns shout out the melody as if no one's ever heard it before. Maybe it's just difficult for Ritenour to rein in his all-star session players including Ray Parker Jr., Nathan East, Russell Ferrante, and Jerry Hey or featured guests like tenor saxophonist Richard Elliot who blows himself out on "Nothin'".
But, Ritenour reacts as if he knew things had gone over the deep end and redemption arrives on the next track "Creepin'" which is still a little overdone, but not nearly as soggy as the previous selection. A large part of the credit goes to the harmonica playing which doesn't attempt to ape Wonder's style. Instead it sticks to the task of capturing the song's unforgettable melodic phrases. Also, Bob James thankfully applies a light touch on the keys.
Ritenour takes a moment in the spotlight on the El DeBarge tune "All This Love" and shines through his crisp, almost classical guitar playing which meshes with the light sax work of Gerald Albright for a light, romantic R&B romp on the beach. Their featured work stands in stark contrast to the busy sound on "Inner City Blues" that buries them in a deluge of unfunkiness along with additional guest guitarist George Benson.
I'd like to believe that if all of the Funk Brothers were around today, they would make Ritenour get rid of all the clutter in his own style and set him on the straight and narrow course that might lead to the creation of classics that someone might feel compelled to apply their own twists to down the road. The key question in crafting the perfect mix is how do you measure a twist?