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Lee Ritenour

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For Lee Ritenour, there aren’t many ‘firsts’ left to achieve. During his dazzling five-decade career, the fabled LA guitarist has taken his music to the outer limits, alighting on every genre and occupying every position in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament. He’s been an enfant terrible of ’70s fusion, a crossover star of the ’80s pop chart, an honorary exponent of Brazilian jazz, and the fingers behind ’90s supergroup, Fourplay. Ritenour’s accolades include: 45 albums, Grammy award winner, plus 16 Grammy nominations, Alumnus of the year at USC, Los Angeles’ Jazz Society Honoree (2019), plus thousands of sessions with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, among others.

And yet, when he checks the rear-view mirror, the 68-year-old acknowledges he’s never made a record like Dreamcatcher. “People have been telling me for years: ‘Rit, you gotta make a solo guitar record’. In the past, I’ve always been the band guy, the ensemble guy, the collaborative-guitar-player guy. So this was the one project I hadn’t done. And this year, I knew it was time.”

Weaving tapestries of instrumental guitar and conjuring eclectic moods, the 12 tracks of Dreamcatcher rank amongst the most melodic and tinglingly beautiful in Ritenour’s catalogue. But there’s a power and purpose here, too, hinting at the darker circumstances that sparked this new record. “Our house and my studio in Malibu, California burnt down in 2018,” he recalls. “About 100 of my guitars went up in the fire, plus 40 amps, lots of music, the history of my whole career, pretty much. A week after the fire, I went to the hospital, which I’d never had to do before, for surgery to replace an aortic valve. So those incidents and the support from my family and friends absolutely went into this music. Making this record was a life-saver for me.”

 Dreamcatcher might have been born from personal challenges, but the record took shape against the global tragedy of Covid-19. Ritenour had already written several key tracks before shutdown. But as he settled into the makeshift studio at his new home in Marina Del Rey, equipped with little more than seven guitars, a computer interface and good intentions, the guitarist let the context flood into the music he was tracking. “It was an important album for me,” he notes. “Especially now, with everything going on in the world.”

Even without lyrics, every track tells a story. Take the molten blues licks of “Abbot Kinney”, named for the fabled boulevard in Venice, California. “One day when everything was shut down,” says Ritenour, “I drove my bike there and was just devastated to find it completely empty. But then I heard this rock guitar start up. I don’t know if it was a kid, but somebody nearby had just turned it up to 10 and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna have some fun’. It brought a huge smile to my face and inspired me to write that song on my Les Paul.”

Likewise, anyone living through the age of Covid-19 will feel a deep affinity with “2020”: a three-part symphony in which Ritenour takes the pulse of the times. “The three parts were a reflection of what was going on this year,” he nods, “when all of a sudden everybody’s life shut down. I was thinking about the young musicians that were out of work – and people in every walk of life.”

Elsewhere Dreamcatcher delves beyond the pandemic. While Ritenour strived to switch up musical styles – from the title track’s dovetailing classical guitars to the Taylor baritone that drives “Starlight’s” tumbling folk, and the mad scientist multi-tracking of “Couldn’t Help Myself” – he also ran the gamut of mood. “Because even I get tired,” he reasons, “of solo guitar albums when it pretty much all sounds the same.”

As such, “For DG” salutes the harmonic sensibilities of the great producer, pianist, and long-time comrade, Dave Grusin. But it couldn’t be further from “Charleston”, whose mellow slink is laced with bittersweet thoughts on the ebb and flow of US race relations. “A few years ago, I played in Charleston, South Carolina,” recalls Ritenour, “and it was charming and the people were warm, and it was a very mixed, soulful audience. Charleston has a history of the beginnings of slavery, but this was modernday Charleston, y’know? But then, a few years later, I’m writing this tune while watching the continuation of the struggle. As musicians who travel all over the world, we go, ‘What? This shit is still going on in the US?’ So it was appropriate to dedicate that song to Black Lives Matter.”

Dreamcatcher not only confronts the here-and-now: it also slips back into Ritenour’s rich history. Long-standing fans will recognize “Morning Glory Jam” as a rework of the guitarist’s classic 1977 tune. “On 2015’s A Twist Of Rit, I had revisited a lot of older material, so I wanted to keep this record fresh. But one day, I remembered when I did sessions for Barry White and how there had been four or five guitar players all playing these incredible rhythm parts. That’s the kind of groove I had in my head for this new version of Morning Glory.”

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