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Jazz Roots: Guitar Virtuosos

In 1939, Charlie Christian auditioned for Benny Goodman, who heard the future and hired the electric jazz guitar pioneer on the spot, forever changing the sound of jazz. Still, as forward thinking as Christian and Goodman were, neither could have imagined the dramatic technological changes, new techniques or new sounds that would separate the first, crude tries at electric amplification in the 1920s and ’30s from today’s brave new world of guitar synthesizers and fretless guitars.

“And it continues to evolve,” says guitarist Lee Ritenour, 59, from his home in Los Angeles. “Some of the technology has helped, but the players and the music also have pushed it along.”

Ritenour and Al Di Meola, leading guitarists of modern jazz who have nudged the form along by expanding its vocabulary and instrumental techniques, headline “Jazz Roots: Guitar Virtuosos” at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on April 1st.

Ritenour, who will appear leading a quartet, started his career at 16, playing in a recording session for The Mamas and The Papas. He developed into a first-call studio musician, backing artists such as Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny Rollins, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles, as well as groups such as Pink Floyd (he recorded on The Wall), and Steely Dan (on Aja).

He launched his solo career in 1975 and went on to explore not only different technologies (including guitar synthesizers) but also various musical styles, from instrumental pop jazz (his Is It You? was an early hit in the genre in 1981) to Motown and Brazilian and even classical music. His most recent album, 2010’s 6 String Theo ry, celebrated his 50 years of playing by showcasing different styles: jazz, rock, blues, acoustic, country and classical and featuring such fellow guitarists as B.B. King, George Benson, Slash, Robert Cray, John Scofield and Vince Gill.

Still, some of his most satisfying work is encompassed by the albums Stolen Mom ents and Wes Bound, his tributes to Wes Montgomery, after Christian the most important guitarist in jazz.

“Wes has been my primary influence, and people assume it’s because of his beautiful tone, his technique and the stylistic things I got from him,” Ritenour says. “But equally important, maybe even more, was the fact he was the first guitarist of his generation to really cross over and include Latin rhythms and pop music in his style, and that also [meant] commercializing it quite a bit and giving us a freedom to evolve. I was influenced by all those things, too.”

In 1990, Ritenour was a founding member of Fourplay, the most successful group in contemporary jazz but, he says “the stuff got so watered down and eventually evolved into this smooth jazz format that kind of ate itself.”

While Ritenour achieved wider popular recognition somewhat slowly, emerging from the anonymity of studio work, guitarist Al Di Meola exploded on to the jazz scene in 1974 as the 19-year-old guitar slinger in keyboardist Chick Corea’s jazz-fusion super group Return To Forever.

Di Meola, who will lead his acoustic world jazz sextet World Sinfonia at the Arsht, went from student at Berklee College of Music to debuting with Return To Forever at Carnegie Hall almost overnight. After the group disbanded in 1976, he glided into a successful solo career, alternating between electric and acoustic with his spectacular acoustic trio also featuring Paco de Lucia, the premier guitarist in flamenco music, and John McLaughlin, a fellow electric-fusion guitar hero.

Still, his Return To Forever fame proved curse as well as blessing. Even as Di Meola developed his Latin-tinged fusion sound, many of his followers wanted only to be dazzled by his speed.

“It took a lot of albums for people to discover that I’m offering a hell of a lot more than that element that was so prevalent in early fusion music,” Di Meola says from a bus on the road with the band. “The technical thing was what they took note first when I joined [Return To Forever] and, sometimes, that overshadowed the more important thing, which was the composition, the music. When I went back to the reunion of that group [in 2008] …I realized how bombastic, over the top and ridiculously loud everything was. And that’s not where I am anymore. I wasn’t fulfilled at all.”

The turning point in Di Meola’s post-Return To Forever career was his acquaintance with the late Argentine New Tango master Astor Piazzolla, whom he met in Japan, in 1985.

“He knew my music, and I couldn’t understand the respect he had for me,” Di Meola reminisces. “I didn’t even know who he was, or his music. But I liked him so much as a person first — and then I got his music and heard some of his recordings and I was blown away. It was like discovering a new Bach.

“I come from the beginning of that whole fusion period [in jazz], and the music had an element of excitement … [but] a lot was based on our technical ability and all that crap. Piazzolla’s music was complex, but it also touched your heart. [Jazz rock] fusion music never, ever, had that.”

Piazzolla’s impact was reflected in the inspired Di Meola plays Piazzolla (1990) and continues through the guitarist’s acoustic group World Sinfonia. The music is much more reflective, and the influences are broad: jazz and tango but also Middle Eastern and African music and Cuban rhythms. Di Meola’s latest disc, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, features him on electric and acoustic guitar and World Sinfonia in its third incarnation, a sextet with Fausto Beccalossi on accordion and guests such as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Peter Erskine.

“The basic concept of the group is still the marriage of the acoustic guitar and either the bandoneón [the melancholy-sounding button squeezebox that is the quintessential instrument of tango] or the accordion,” Di Meola explains. “This group is probably the best collaborative improvising combination I’ve ever had. We just breathe together. It’s not about huge egos. Here, the music comes first. That’s what I got from Piazzolla: It’s the  composition; it’s the music, that’s important. Everything else comes off that.”

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