Grusin, Ritenour deliver full program of music, laughs

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Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour still tour. They returned to Jazz Alley for another spectacular gig this past September.

It was a short set by industry standards. But full of funk, salsa, be bop, and lots of easy, hilarious banter.

Masters in their game, keyboardist Dave Grusin and guitarist Lee Ritenour took the Jazz Alley stage August 27th a few minutes after their 7:30 p.m. set with some young powerhouses on drums — Will Kennedy (who played with the Yellowjackets) and bass — Melvin Davis. Together, they carried the audience from one rollicking number to another, grooving on Ritenour’s “Smoke ‘N Mirrors,” to Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim’s lesser-known “Stone Flower” (he did “Girl From Ipanema”).

Throughout each tune, the musicians hung close, chasing each other’s solos with their own flavor, using pauses inventively (Kennedy and Davis nearly stole the show doing this), and doing that give-and-take thing jazz musicians love to do and do so well.

A surprise for me was Ritenour’s natural rapport with the jam-packed audience (Dave Koz came in from a nearby gig the night me and my husband were there). This guy may kill on the guitar — his “Six String Theory” CD project featuring 20 of the best guest guitarists in the world is generating some big buzz — but he’s also hilarious.

He started off by not introducing the first song, but by joking that already he’s changing the set list. In between, he joked with the crowd about almost pulling the rest of the scheduled gigs the rainy day before, ’cause he ain’t into rainy, cold weather, he’s from L.A. Toward the end of the set, a lady at the balcony seat yelled down, “Come down to Alaska.” To which Ritenour quipped, “Alaska? I’m sorry, but that’s too cold. I’m sure it’s a beautiful state, but I’m from L.A. I like sun.”

Later on he riffed about gigging in New York City, having the staff order the audience to turn off their cell phones (not politely like they do here in Seattle, he added), and then finding out that his own cell phone was “ringing like a bitch” through the entire first song.

When he introduced his quieter “partner in crime” Dave Grusin doing a little number on the piano, Grusin playfully tinkled the ivories in a generic form, causing Ritenour to tease, “no, not that. That’s the gig at the hotel [laughs].”

After jumping into the third song, Ritenour inadvertently caused the audience to roar with laughter when part of the curved wood broke off his see-through guitar (for a fuller sound) and he had to stop playing to punch it back on. He wound up replacing it for a regular electric right after.

About halftime, Ritenour told Grusin to say hello to the audience, since he hadn’t done that yet. Grusin came back with, “It’s hard to get a word in.” Then, he was off, matching Ritenour comedy for comedy — these two could go on tour as a comedic/musical act — talking about how he has always been a fan of Ritenour’s since he was a child (Grusin is in his 70s, Ritenour his 50s), while Ritenour took his broken piece of guitar and made it look like a hook at Grusin. Things got a little serious when Grusin praised Kennedy and Davis, said it was a privilege that these young lads let him jam with them. The audience laughed appreciatively, but Grusin said he was serious, which only made them laugh more.

Musically, you could tell these guys have played together for a long time. They knew each other’s styles and blended well. Grusin would closely follow Ritenour’s solo with his own, and seem to create brand-new musical pieces out of pre-existing songs from the set list. We would learn after the show from bassist Melvin Davis that that was Grusin’s trademark, the man was orchestrating, even on a gig.

“Dave Grusin is always composing while he plays,” Davis told us. No wonder Grusin has had a string of hit soundtracks from movies and television.

There were times when his solo compositions would go back and forth with the bassist’s, like their instruments were talking to each other, echoing lines, until — around the encore — Grusin would just go off on his own orchestral tangent, taking the line and turning it into a fanciful song none of the other band members expected, causing Ritenour to turn quizzically and go, Whoa!, with his eyes and hands. But in an amazed, approving way.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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