Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
April 4, 2012
The Mayne Stage
By Liz Mandeville
Photos: Alex Kluft
As I entered the beautiful, newly renovated theatre, The Mayne Stage, a well dressed, middle-aged woman belied her age, begging me for a spare ticket, like we were going to a rock concert. Over the decades he’s been recording and performing, Lee Ritenour has built a strong, loyal following in Chicago, inspiring that kind of dedicated fandom which yielded a sold out show, despite the fact that it was a weeknight. By 7:45, the sophisticated, mixed crowd of over 35s, sat excitedly sipping their cocktails, eagerly anticipating, and Lee did not disappoint.
At exactly 8 p.m., Mr. Ritenour and his casually dressed band took the stage and, for the next two hours, proceeded to roll out some of the most finely crafted, beautifully rendered jazz to grace these Lake Michigan shores since Miles Davis played the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Ritenour, standing on a rust-hued oriental rug, his arsenal of guitars and pedals to the fore, was flanked on stage left by a powerful rhythm section consisting of Atlanta-based drummer Sonny Emory and seven-string bassist Melvin Davis. To his right, German born multi-keyboardist Dr. Jesse Miliner played electric piano, organ and The Mayne Stage’s magnificent grand piano with taste and restraint. From center stage, Ritenour commanded his musicians like an experienced rider directing a spirited young steed, giving it quiet, firm commands without breaking its spirit.
Ritenour started the all-instrurmental program by playing a blues-based, smooth jazz number on a cherry sunburst Gibson, using a lovely, clean tone washed with reverb. Once through the main theme, as the ensemble established the tune, the solos ensued: first came the keyboardist on his electric 88s, followed by the virtuoso Lee, playing those clean, precise runs that flowed so smoothly from his guitar.
Warmed up, the second number starts off with a heavily “wah-wah-ed,” very busy bass solo. The band comes in, building to an immediate crescendo which is propelled by Ritenour employing octave figures in his guitar part.
On the third number, Ritenour trades his Gibson for a strange, bodiless guitar that’s basically a stick with a wrought iron outline of a guitar, letting us know it’s the familiar instrument with six strings and electronics. This instrument has a very wide fingerboard and such heavy strings that I can see from my seat in the balcony they’re fat, as those used by most bassists. An Afro-Latin, very percussive groove ensues, with the keyboardist switching to the acoustic grand. Piano and guitar play the same line with the bass adding counterpoint, increasing the tempo and intensity until the piano drops out altogether; that player switches to a shaker to add another layer of rhythm over a snare heavy drum part. The song reminds me of the frenetic energy of an afternoon in Manhattan. Back on grand piano, the music moves to a percussive solo, with the insistent bass line, pushing the music. Lee switches to an electric guitar with a very acoustic sound. As he solos over the frenetic rhythm, I have visions of a packed room of Latin dancers spinning through the night. The piano takes the lead, building to yet another crescendo, the music moving through variations that make me think of Vince Guaraldi (of “Linus and Lucy” fame). It all comes to a wild conclusion with the piano and guitar harmonizing on a double figure.
Time for a short pause for breath, as Lee introduces the band, compliments the venue -- which does indeed have some of the best acoustics in a small intimate theatre and perhaps the best house sound around. He tells us they’re recording the performance and gets the crowd to cheer, first on the left, then right, for the stereo effect.
Rested, the band begins “Westbound,” a crowd favorite. The tune starts with a treble end, wah-wah bass figure in 4/4 time joined by electric piano comping chords. Lee uses octaves over a very funky rhythm section, his tone a lovely delay/reverb blend with bluesy bends (this is one jazz man who definitely “gets” the blues); he then slides into a more distorted tone over a great back-beat.
What I’m loving about this show is its sexy relationship with the Blues -- there’s a funky quarter note holding the song together, even though they go Latin, Smooth, Cool or what-have-you, the rhythm section is fat and present and the back beat is never far from your ear.
There’s a marvelous Farfisa sounding organ solo; the transitions breathe naturally, dynamic tension builds and is exploded returning to that fat back beat. Lovely melodic solo guitar interludes, at times true jazz, at times blue notes creep in, at times almost a classical sensibility leads into a smooth jazz groove. Scat is gently contributed by Mr. Davis, as he executes a solid walking bass line. Jesse is back on the grand; Sonny Emory plays with brushes as Lee executes runs that sound like trickling water. Once again the music transitions after a beautiful climax into straight ahead jazz, the pianists fingers flying, rim-shots on the snare as the bass parts drop to the lowest strings. What truly stands out is how much these musicians DON’T play; all the spaces are not filled, giving the music more dimension and room to breathe, and it’s really refreshing to the ear.
Lee takes some time here to give the band members a more detailed introduction and to talk about his Six String Theory project. It is both a recording project with a CD featuring collaborations with some of music’s most famous and influential artists and it’s a music competition. Going into its third year, the competition offers an opportunity to showcase on the world stage to any non professional musician, rather like the Olympics for music. The overall winner gets a full, free ride to Berklee School of Music and a chance to record with Lee and some of his famous collaborators.
The charming, humorous patter is followed by a song from the Six String Theory CD, a straight ahead jazz tune which quickly morphs into subtle notes of ska, highlighted by a synth patch on the keys and a rock solo for Ritenour. The song breaks down to just bass and drums with Mr. Davis playing a rhythmic pattern allowing Mr. Emory to show off his considerable chops complete with stick twirling, double-bass footwork, press-rolls, changes in beat and tempo, all while the bass holds the pattern. A standing ovation and screaming applause from the audience take us back to a heavy rock groove to end the song.
Lee picks up his curious, bodiless guitar and plays a solo – it sounds almost classical, like the Beatles’ “Blackbird” -- and the band rolls in with a spunky fast paced tune.
The final song, one Lee says he wrote for keyboardist Patrice Rushing and a band he assembled for a project funded by a Japanese company, involves LOTs of CHOPs! He prefaces the song saying it was jokingly named PALS by the band, the acronym standing for Practice All Lines Slowly and we soon see why that is. The pace is frenetic as the piano, guitar and bass race through unison lines, making my head spin! I feel as though I’m in a car chase, hanging on to Mr. Emory’s drum lines for dear life!
Now here comes the funk; Mr. Davis switches to a five-string Fender type bass for some popping and string snapping, while Emory plays 32nd notes on the tom-toms, back beat front and center. Lee is getting all James Brown with stops that make you catch your breath; he then transitions into a smooth jazz bridge with a heavy chorus on the guitar, then it’s time to breathe, and then back to the funk as the focus is traded around the stage. Bursts of color come from the wah-ed bass, there’s heavy piano and the tiniest bit of funk fills played on guitar. The whole room is hollering as the bass man rises from his chair to sway to the rhythm. Now everyone is on their feet as Lee steps out, getting all Pentatonic with a great, tasty little solo. Now the drums are featured, bringing it an even deeper intensity, there’s a low-volume but driving bass and drum thing with little chips of guitar and piano like frosting on a double chocolate cup-cake.
Screaming ovations from the crowd bring the band back for a smooth jazz version of Bob Marley’s classic “Get Up! Stand Up!” that has the audience singing along on the chorus. Lee solos over the verses, his tone and choices, Clapton-esque on one verse, melodic and smooth a la George Benson on another.
Both of those gentlemen have contributed to the Six String Theory project, and it’s clear, from listening to Mr. Ritenour play, that he’s not only enjoyed the collaborations but has learned and borrowed from each artist he’s worked with. His talent extends beyond mere guitar chops to the realm of arrangement and the superb sense of dynamics that leave the listener breathless, eager for more. As I said before in this review, what made the show interesting as a whole was his generous sharing of the spotlight, the interplay between band members and the feeling that it was, indeed a band, all of whom were having a great time playing with each other.
The band leaves the stage, promising to meet their adoring public to sign autographs and CDs in the lobby. My one regret upon leaving the theatre that night was that the crush of fans that devoured Ritenour’s attentions also bought every one of his CDs before I could get one!