Review: Lee Ritenour/Larry Carlton

Francis Graham-Dixon was lucky enough to see two of the most innovative and influential of modern jazz guitarists in London this summer

Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin and Friends, Ronnie Scott's: This date was eagerly anticipated given that I last saw Lee Ritenour and Friends 35 years ago at Hollywood's Baked Potato, a night that I have never forgotten. Given a musical legacy that spans decades and a variety of musical genres – from Brazilian to funk/fusion and post-bop jazz – it is a pleasure to report that he is playing as well as ever.

The evening was divided into two, and demonstrated Ritenour's extraordinary versatility as a guitarist, composer and arranger, showing why he remains so in demand as a studio musician par excellence. The first set, featuring his Yamaha Silent Guitar and and Gibson L5, kicked off with three Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes, the driving samba-infused Stone Flower, a ballad Childrens' Games and (Ohla Maria) Amparo, a beautiful acoustic duet with Dave Grusin that closed his 1976 debut solo album.

Wes Bound was a delightful homage to one of his great influences, Wes Montgomery, featuring unaccompanied solos by Ritenour, Grusin and a duet between new bassist, Tom Kennedy, and regular ex-Earth, Wind and Fire drummer, Sonny Emory. This piece stood out for the number of seamless harmonic and rhythm changes, including a Monk-inflected Grusin interlude.

Following with the main theme from the keyboard/composer's soundtrack to Dinner With Friends felt out of place in this context, a little too saccharine for my palate. The set closed on a high with the hard-bop LP (for Les Paul) written for and performed with Pat Martino, from Ritenour's compelling 2010 Six-String Theory guitar project. Martino's absence from the stage took nothing away from a brilliant version here, full of power and panache.

For the second set, Ritenour's Gibson Les Paul '59 Reissue took centre-stage to dazzling effect. Etude featured an acoustic solo from Kennedy, whose playing the whole night combined great sensitivity with punch. Some of his phrasing on electric bass recalled another favourite, Jimmy Haslip. The temperature ratcheted up with Smoke 'n' Mirrors (2006), a driving funk-rock groove that cooked.

The surprise of the night came in the band's reworking of Marley’s 1973 classic, Get Up, Stand Up, with Grusin's staccato clavinet and electric piano, intercut with three breathtaking Ritenour solos of different hue – and vocals that worked. This somehow caught the moment, and the audience responded with its own spontaneous rendition.

Grusin's 1980 Mountain Dance still holds up, with an unaccompanied acoustic solo that was soulful and reflective. More Grusin film music followed – the theme from On Golden Pond – better than I had anticipated, and ending with a heartfelt acoustic solo. It was time to Lay It Down, the opening track from 6 String Theory, a Ritenour piece written for jazz/fusion icon, John Scofield, grounded the proceedings once more, featuring more pyrotechnics from the interplay between guitar and drums. This was another cooker, and for my money, Emory's best and most original playing of the night in its economy, incorporating a well-integrated array of percussion – with drums, less is often more.

After two and a half hours, generous by any standards, and the standing ovation by the packed house that ensued, the encore raised the bar higher still, the band now in full flight, trading licks and vamping, with a Grusin "tenor saxophone" keyboard solo to boot.

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Larry CarltonLarry Carlton, Leicester Square Theatre: There is always a sense of anticipation seeing Larry Carlton perform live, where he can give full vent to his prodigious talents as a legendary – and I use the term advisedly – guitarist, composer and arranger. He first picked up a guitar aged six, and the rest is an unbroken history.

He was joined on stage at the Leicester Square Theatre by his son, Travis Carlton (bass), Gene Coye (drums), and Dennis Hamm (keyboards). They gelled well as a unit, although the balance and levels on the various keyboards were not always ideal. Carlton quietly walked on stage to tell us he never quite knows what he is going to play on a given night, but that he would "try all kinds of stuff" - exciting.

The set opened with two solo pieces on his trademark Gibson ES-335, the first a mood-setting slow ballad, then inviting the band members one by one to join him on stage, before ripping into an ensemble finger-snapping and driving funk groove. As aficionados would expect, the guitar work was by turns tasty, mean, incendiary and lyrical.

A jazz piece followed with melodic shades of Autumn Leaves. Carlton once described the blues as a big part of his spirit, and the evening was lit up by three very contrasting outings providing him the acres of space to explore his vast range of tone and voicing. Next up was Steely Dan's Josie, a tune that bears so much of his inimitable stamp, before the first set closed with a slow-burning blues full of note-bending.

The venue had apparently required an interval, to the bemusement of the audience – and Carlton himself, who was on song and in full cry – and after the break, the tempo slackened perceptibly with a more pop-inflected Smiles And Smiles To Go” from the 1986 Alone/But Never Alone album. Another ballad, then a change of gear with the taut and springy Ultralight, Carlton’s final composition for Fourplay, whom he left in early 2010 after 12 years, to "delve further into his solo career".

Carlton, conscious of his legacy, has always passed on his knowledge and experience to others, whether via his online guitar clinics – the audience seemed full of guitar players of a certain age – or here, where he endearingly decided upon an impromptu question and answer session with the audience. Some predictably impossible to answer questions followed, but he mentioned that his greatest early influences remain Coltrane and Miles, and of guitar players – Joe Pass.

He also said: "the music comes out emotionally, I'm not even aware of what's coming out." This is how I have always experienced his music – emotionally substantial, contained but free, and always very personal and direct. The evening closed with his signature Room 335. Alas, no encore as he had to be up at 5am to perform next evening in Bilbao. Even a 64-year-old on top form, peeling back the years, needs his sleep.

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