Guitarist Lee Ritenour's newest effort, Smoke 'n' Mirrors, was released a couple months ago, so I'm quite behind in acknowledging it. A consummate studio musician, Ritenour's polished execution might set off the listener's "smooth jazz" detector, but I think actually listening to the album will reveal that improvisation can remain fresh even in a more produced setting. I always find it interesting to hear what happens when a studio pro leads their own session; some may think session musicians' styles are not distinctive enough because it's in their nature to blend in, but I think Ritenour's own music can be stimulating. (For evidence of this, check out Wes Bound or Stolen Moments.) Fans may remember his fusion collaborations with Bob James, Nathan East and Harvey Mason in Fourplay, but Ritenour's credentials run the gamut from blues to pop to world (Brazilian music, in particular) to mainstream jazz. He has graced recordings by B.B. King, Roberta Flack, Flora Purim, Herbie Hancock, the Four Tops, Dave Grusin (several, in fact), Steely Dan and Stanley Turrentine.
Smoke 'n' Mirrors finds Ritenour fusing his many influences with a strong emphasis on world genres. Fans of polyrhythms and percussion will enjoy the work of Alex Acuna and Paulinho da Costa throughout. Bassist Richard Bona is a good fit with Ritenour here, too, offering some flavors of Jaco Pastorius and some solid funk. The album's title cut is a vampy romp with a bright 7/4 B-section. Bona fills up the space with some brief but potent statements, and Ritenour's flashy outro is worth hearing. "Blue Days" features its composer Daniel Jobim on vocals and keyboards paired with vocalists Joyce (the song is sung in Portuguese). For Gabor Szabo's "Spellbinder," the leader employs provided by Satnam Ramgotra on tablas for some South Asian color to complement the groove. Brian Bromberg works his usual fleet-fingered magic on double bass while Ritenour gives some nods to Wes but injects plenty of his own flavor with a singing, bluesy, well-paced solo and plenty of bent notes. "Povo" is slightly slicker and more compact than on Freddie Hubbard's original CTI recording, but Ritenour's solo here is one of my favorite moments on the disc; he does George Benson proud. Patrice Rushen's Rhodes work is also admirable and retains much of the dark, languid vibe of the original. The standout track for this reviewer is "Waters Edge," which is brief but catchy. Bona has a short solo with some clever, stuttering figures and Ritenour relies on chord melodies on acoustic guitar with infectious results.
While listeners may find some of the tracks less acceptable than others (e.g. the saccharine soprano sax sound on "Township" or R&B vocals and four-on-the-floor pulse of "Forget Me Nots"), Smoke 'n' Mirrors does give Ritenour a chance to show his admirable improvisational skills along with those of the respectable cast of sidemen. Though the solos throughout are kept concise and the players never get a chance to really cut loose, I still think the listener will find this album to be earnest. It serves as a cross-section of Ritenour's influences and how he incorporates them. True, the "blowing" here may not be quite as heavy as some of his previous dates, and if this music is in the background, it might still be heard simply as background music, but there are plenty of moments of high-level musicianship to reward the more attentive listener, too.
Buy Smoke 'n' Mirrors. You can hear his music (from this release and earlier ones) streaming on his website.