For four decades, guitarist Lee Ritenour has been one of the most successful contemporary jazz musicians in America. The 17-time Grammy nominee will make his Blue Note Napa debut with four performances on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 16 and 17.
Most bios about Ritenour begin with his precocious entry into the music business, a recording session with The Mamas & the Papas when he was 16 years old. On the phone last week, he talked about how it happened.
“I’d been playing the guitar since I was 8,” Ritenour said, “and knew I wanted to be a professional musician by the time I was 12. My dad was pretty great about calling people up and trying to get me the best teachers. Joe Pass was in the phone book, Barney Kessel was in the phone book, and my dad would get me lessons with them.
“By age 15, I was playing in a jazz big band and with small groups doing gigs around town in the (Los Angeles) South Bay. I grew up in Palos Verdes. It was the middle ‘60s, and I was starting to play rock, but with a jazz background. There was this band called the Latin Jazz Quartet, and they heard that I could play both styles, so they hired me.”
“One day I was told that John Phillips from The Mamas & The Papas was gonna produce our demo,” Ritenour said. “John must have liked my playing because he said, ‘Well, I’m recording tomorrow night with my group,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean your group?’ And he said, ‘The Mamas & The Papas. Do you wanna stay and do a track with us?’
“As I remember, the night went well, but I looked for that record for years to see if it ever came out, and to my knowledge it never did. I later heard that Phillips recorded constantly and just had tapes and tapes and tapes and tapes. Anyway, it was fun just to be there.”
Ritenour is known for his dexterity — his nickname is Doctor Fingers — and particularly for his versatility. “I had a wonderful mentor and teacher and friend named Duke Miller,” he said. “His background was studio work. If I wanted to be a professional, being a studio musician was a good choice because by day you were doing sessions and you didn’t have to travel all the time. You could have a home life.
“I was training to be versatile, to be a chameleon. I loved the guitar, and every style of guitar had a legend. It was the golden era of guitar.”
He reeled off his heroes: in jazz, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass; in rock, Hendrix, Beck and Clapton; in blues, BB King in his prime; in classical, Segovia; in flamenco, Sabicas; in country, Chet Atkins.
Ritenour’s discography is voluminous: 31 featured artist albums yielding 12 charted singles, plus over two dozen collaborations, compilations and recordings as sideman. His most popular collaborations include four albums as a founding member of Fourplay and his work with Oscar and multiple Grammy winner, composer and pianist Dave Grusin.
His band at Blue Note will be a new combination of players, “but a very, very nice one,” he said. “The pianist is Otmaro Ruiz. Otmaro has toured with John McLaughlin, Gino Vannelli, and a whole bunch of jazzers. He’s an educator as well, just a wonderful player originally from Venezuela.
“The bass player is Hadrien Feraud. He’s the young, hot bass player of record in Los Angeles these days. He moved here from France a while ago. He’s very melodic and also a wonderful player.”
The guitar virtuoso saved his favorite bandmate for last. “Wesley Ritenour, my 24-year-old son, is playing drums,” he added, his pride uncamouflaged. “He’s been traveling with me all over the world playing with all the different variations of my band.
“Wesley’s also got his own band these days, gigging in L.A., and he went to New York to do a record recently. He’s the next generation. After the shows, a lot of the fans like to talk with him more than with me.”
Friday, Feb. 16 and Saturday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. (doors open 5:30 p.m.) and 9:30 p.m. (doors open 9 p.m.). $35-$55. Blue Note Napa. 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. BlueNoteNapa.com.