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2024 Biamp Portland Jazz Festival: Bob James Quartet + Lee Ritenour
A Special Double Billed Show
The career of Bob James is long, varied and continues to evolve at every turn. From his first days in Marshall, Missouri, the music of Bob James has captivated audiences throughout the world.
Discovered by Quincy Jones at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1963, James recorded his first solo album, Bold Conceptions, that year for Mercury Records. 58 albums and innumerable awards would follow through five decades. He honed his skills working with Creed Taylor, working on albums for artists like Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr, among others. While with CTI, James found great popular success overseeing significant hits for Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Maynard Ferguson, and Kenny Loggins.
In 1974, James finally recorded his own album, One, which launched a lifelong career of recording and performing live. After three more albums, James began his own label, Tappan Zee Records. This allowed James to spend more time in the studio, focusing on his own creative works. It was during this time that he recorded his own gold seller, Touchdown, which included his composition, “Angela”, the instrumental theme from the sitcom Taxi, and possibly James’ best know work. Bob composed all the original music used in that television series for its entire run. One On One, the first in three collaborations with Earl Klugh, was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and has sold over a million copies. During this time, James set the standard for the smooth jazz sound in the late 1970s.
A different aspect of the musical talent of Bob James was demonstrated on his three classical albums recorded for the CBS Masterworks division, the first of which was Rameau released in 1984, and followed by The Scarlatti Dialogues & Bach keyboard concertos with the Pekinel Sisters.
In 1985 James moved to Warner Bros Records, and kicked things off with Double Vision, a collaboration with David Sanborn, and produced by Tommy LiPuma. Double Vision was another Grammy winner, selling over a million albums.
While recording his album, Grand Piano Canyon, in 1990, James reunited with longtime friend, drummer Harvey Mason, Jr. It would also be the first time James would work with guitarist Lee Ritenour, and bassist Nathan East. This would be the start of something beautiful, as these early sessions ignited a spark which would engulf the Jazz world as Fourplay. Fourplay’s first album was recorded and released in 1991. The Group would collaborate on a total of three albums, until 1998 when Ritenour left the group, and Larry Carlton took over. This version of Fourplay continued the group’s huge success for seven more albums. After 12 years, Carlton decided to delve further into his solo career, and the band brought in guitarist Chuck Loeb in 2010.
A personal and professional highlight was the collaboration with his daughter, Hilary, on their Flesh & Blood album, which toured 15 U.S. cities. James continued collaborating on separate projects with Earl Klugh, (Cool) and Kirk Whalum (Joined At the Hip). Both albums were nominated for Grammys. His solo career continued throughout the '90s, culminating with Joy Ride in 1999, and another Grammy nomination.
In 2001, Dancing on the Water, was released, once again showcasing James’ creative versatility. The album includes performances with Keiko Matsui, Joe Sample, Dave Holland, and Chuck Loeb. Fourplay released Heartfelt in 2002, and spent much of the year touring across the globe. That same year, James released Morning, Noon, & Night, whose title track went to #1 in Contemporary Jazz Radio.
While appearing at New York’s Blue Note, in February of 2003, James went into the Hit Factory with Billy Kilson, James Genus, and Ken Freeman on the board. The result was Take It From the Top, a tribute to pianists who inspired James; Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson, among others.
The very next year James was at it again, with Fourplay releasing Journey in 2004. Fourplay toured most of the year, culminating with a trip to South Africa in November of 2005 and a final tour stop in Bangkok, Thailand in December. This event featured the world premiere live performance of James’ ‘The Angels of Shanghai.’ This project encompased several months in the Far East collaborating with students from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, who played ancient Chinese instruments, as well as James Genus, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason. This project finally toured the U.S. in 2007, and culminated with a performance later in the year at the prestigious Seongnam Art Center in Seoul, Korea, where James was also invited to have a solo exhibit of his art in conjunction with the performance.
James stayed busy in 2006, releasing Urban Flamingo in February, and on April 7, was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Summer saw the release of Fourplay’s tenth record, appropriately called X. This tour literally took James around the world again with stops in Spain, London, California, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuala Lumpur, and Indonesia.
In 2008, James released a Christmas album with Hilary James, and another Fourplay album, Energy. Energy featured Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, and another Grammy nomination with the first single, “Fortune Teller”. The year ended on a high note with James and close friend, the Tony award winning Broadway director Jack O’Brien, receiving the International Achievement Award by the state of Michigan.
Bob has maintained a commitment to sophisticated production and arrangements, while stretching out in different and new directions. This culminated with another busy year in 2009 with the release of The Very Best of Bob James. Not stopping there, James also released Botero, a collaboration with Jack Lee, composed music for the Broadway play ‘Impressionism’, and recorded Across the Groove, a collaboration with Japanese sax player Masato Honda, all in the same year. This again led James touring across Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
2010 saw the twelfth Fourplay album released, Let’s Touch the Sky, which led to another world tour, culminating with an unforgettable collaboration with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo in December. This premiered new orchestral pieces arranged specifically for this concert, and was Fourplay’s first performance with a symphony orchestra. Fourplay was voted Best Group of the Year at the American Smooth Jazz Awards to wrap up a busy 2010.
2011 brought devastating natural disasters to Japan, and James, with a close relationship to the region wanted to contribute to the relief efforts. This led to the Jazz for Japan benefit album, and the Iwate benefit concert, headlined by James.
Then, in September 2011, Altair & Vega, the Four-Hand piano duet collaboration with Keiko Matsui, was released. This unique collaboration which took nearly 10 years, resulted in several memorable live tour performances, before being completed as a recorded album, along with a live performance DVD recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Later that same year, James released a collaboration with Savannah guitarist Howard Paul with Just Friends: The Hamilton Hall Sessions. All this, while still touring with Fourplay, including headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, and receiving the Oasis Contemporary jazz award for ‘Group of the Year’. James was also honored in his hometown of Marshall, MO, with the inaugural ‘Bob James Jazz Festival’.
Fourplay joined forces again the following year with the release of Esprit de Four. The album hit the charts, producing several successful tracks, including the powerful “Put Our Hearts Together”, which featured vocals by Seiko Matsuda. he song was a tribute to the regions of Japan devastated by the natural disasters just months earlier, and spawned several benefit concerts, such as the Iwate Jazz Festival, and a full length documentary of James’ visit to the region.
In 2013 Quartette Humaine was released. This was the first creative collaboration between keyboardist-composer Bob James and alto saxophonist David Sanborn since their million-selling, Grammy-winning album, Double Vision, twenty-five years ago.
2015 brought the release of James’ first live album, Live at the Milliken Auditorium, which was captured on a magical night in his home town of Traverse City, Michigan. This same year also brought the first release from James and long time collaborator Nathan East, The New Cool, a masterful work of art which truly redefines the essence of cool. Still not finished, James and Fourplay came together for the release of the group’s 25th anniversary with Silver, which was recorded old school at Sunset Sound Studios, where the group recorded their first album 25 years earlier.
While James is recognized as one of the progenitors of smooth jazz, his music has also had a profound effect on the history of hip hop, having been sampled often. Two of James’ songs—“Nautilus” from 1974’s One and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” from 1975’s Two —are among the most sampled in hip hop history. According to whosampled.com, “Nautilus” and “Take Me to Mardi Gras” have been sampled in thirty-two and forty-three hip-hop recordings, respectively. The title track from his 1981 album Sign of the Times was sampled in De La Soul‘s “Keepin’ the Faith”, and Warren G‘s “Regulate”. His “Angela” was sampled in the track “Cab Fare” by Souls of Mischief. The track “El Verano” from the 1977 album BJ4 is used as a sample in the song “Blown Away” by the Cocoa Brovaz and also in the Masta Ace Track “NY Confidential”. N.W.A‘s “Alwayz into Somethin'” uses a sample of “Storm King” from the album Three. “Can’t Wait” by Redman features a sample of “Caribbean Nights” from the album Touchdown. English Drum & Bass pioneer Adam F extensively sampled “Westchester Lady” on his 1995 breakthrough release Circles. Röyksopp sampled his version of “You’re as Right as Rain” for their instrumental track “Eple.” In addition, James is mentioned in a verse by André 3000 on “Black Ice” from Goodie Mob’s second album Still Standing.
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.”
View all 2024 Biamp Portland Jazz Festival events at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Newmark & Winningstad Theatres.
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