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Playing Tribute to a Hero : A new record by guitarist Lee Ritenour combines styles in celebrating the music of the late jazz giant Wes Montgomery.

June 11, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times.

Lee Ritenour has never been a big fan of musical tributes to personal heroes.

"Tributes in general seem to come off trite, and never on the level of the original," said Ritenour, one of modern music's best known instrumentalists, who plays Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Nonetheless, for a long time there had been a thought in the back of his mind to pay homage in a recording to his first major influence, Wes Montgomery.

Montgomery, who died in 1968 at age 45, was the most celebrated guitarist of his generation, a musician with a superbly swinging yet lyrical style and a beaming, golden tone, produced by using his thumb, not the usual guitar pick. Based in the mainstream jazz tradition, Montgomery also achieved substantial popular success marrying tunes of the day, such as Lennon-McCartney's "A Day in the Life," with his own rich jazz bent.

Ritenour knew he had to find a personal way of honoring Montgomery; copying or emulating the jazz giant was out of the question.

"The most dangerous thing would be to play a tune that Wes recorded, and not play it as well as he did. Who wants to hear that?" Ritenour said. "That's the silliest. You can never beat the master at his own game."

So Ritenour decided to make "Wes Bound"--his dedication to Montgomery that was released earlier this year on GRP Records--as a Wes Montgomery record seen through the eyes of Lee Ritenour.

"I felt that my own style had evolved enough to where I could take the gloves off and do Wes' style but combine it with my own, and do a '90s version of a Wes album," said the guitarist, who has long called himself a "contemporary jazz" artist who blends elements from jazz, pop, rock and Brazilian music into his offerings.

The album features Ernie Watts on saxes, and Ronnie Foster and Alan Broadbent on keyboards. It includes such revered Montgomery tunes as "Boss City," "Road Song," "West Coast Blues" and "Four on Six," along with four Ritenour originals.

"Boss City," one of several tunes in the album that Ritenour and company will play at the Amphitheatre, is a good example of how the guitarist has personalized a Montgomery interpretation. Originally recorded in the '60s for Verve Records, with a subtle bossa nova-rock rhythmic background, the song as played by Ritenour is done with a bluesy flair and a contemporary shuffle beat.

"The drums play a lot on the back beat, on the second and fourth beats, and there's a lot of funk in the feeling, so that it's almost like an R&B tune," said Ritenour, who also incorporated some of a Montgomery-ish approach into his previous album, the mainstream jazz venture "Stolen Moments" (GRP).

Another number that seems a little aesthetically distant for a Montgomery-esque version is a reggae tune, Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain." It features reggae vocalist Maxi Priest, who also appears Wednesday. But Ritenour, who plays a solo with a Montgomery flavor, felt it was on the money for this project. "I'm playing Wes' style on that tune, and it just goes to show how timeless and flexible his whole approach is," he said.

Ritenour, 41, a Malibu resident who grew up in Hollywood, heard Montgomery in person at age 13, when his father took him to the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach. "I remember this great feeling he had," said Ritenour. "There was something really forceful about his playing, yet it was elegant and sophisticated. And there was this incredible sound, this sound that just poured out. That influence has sustained until today."

The mark of Montgomery can be heard in Ritenour's own attractive tone. "His sound is just plain sumptuous," wrote respected jazz critic Chuck Berg in Jazz Times Magazine.

"Wes Bound" has been atop the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts for five weeks, indicating strong sales. But though Ritenour appreciates the financial result, it is even more rewarding to him that listeners are learning about his hero.

"If this record sells a million copies, then it means a million people will get introduced to Wes Montgomery," he said.

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Lee Ritenour at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal Parkway, Universal City. Acoustic Alchemy is also on the bill.

* Hours: 8 p.m. Wednesday.

* Price: $24 to $29.

* Call: (818) 980-9421.

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