Putting together classical masterpieces and jazz colorings is not always an easy marriage. But when jazz superstars Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour teamed up for the Grammy-nominated album Two Worlds eight years ago, they received raves for their groundbreaking fusion of these genres.
Now, they’re back with Amparo, a new album on Decca that melds music by such iconic classical composers as Maurice Ravel, George Frederic Handel, Tomas Albinoni, and Gabriel Faure with their unique approach. Ever innovative, the duo also stirs in such artistic surprises as pop vocal legend James Taylor, opera superstar Renee Fleming, master classical violinist Joshua Bell, and popular jazz trumpeter Chris Botti into their unique blend.
The album is a masterful and mesmerizing mix that includes new arrangements written by Grusin of many popular classical selections, including not just Faure’s Pavane, an excerpt from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Albinoni’s G minor Adagio, and a duet from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, but other musical colors as well. There’s also a suite of Latin-inspired works penned by Dave Grusin himself (Three Latin American Dances), a Ritenour original composition newly arranged by Ritenour and Grusin (Echos), as well as the track which inspired the album’s title: Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Olha Maria (Amparo).
“For me,” reveals Grusin, “the joy of this project is really in the process: selecting repertoire, re-imagining it in new settings, and hopefully creating something that draws something new out of old favorites. It’s a labor of love.”
Composer, arranger and pianist Dave Grusin can rightly be called Hollywood royalty. An Oscar winner for his score for The Milagro Beanfield War, he has written over sixty other scores, including such Oscar-nominated scores as The Champ, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Firm, Havana, Heaven Can Wait, and On Golden Pond.
From his scores for The Graduate to For the Boys to Selena to Mulholland Falls, Grusin has proved himself to be an endlessly inventive and evocative film composer. His work for television is just as impressive; among many other credits, he wrote the theme songs for such famous series as “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “St. Elsewhere.”
However, jazz is Grusin’s artistic home, and a genre he has long championed as both a performer and as a businessman. Along with Larry Rosen, Grusin co-founded GRP Records, whose roster included such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Spyro Gyra, the Brecker brothers, David Benoit, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Yellowjackets, The Rippingtons, Stephane Grappelli, Diana Krall, Daine Shuur, Dave Valentine--and guitarist Lee Ritenour, a frequent artistic partner. (Their collaboration on the GRP album Harlequin won a Grammy in 1985.)
Another powerhouse force in contemporary jazz, Ritenour (nicknamed “Captain Fingers”) has recorded over forty albums as a solo artist, including the 1993 chart-smashing tribute to Wes Montgomery titled Wes Bound and 1997’s A Twist of Jobim, an homage to the iconic Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos [“Tom”] Jobim.
That Jobim-focused album led to what became a trio of Twist projects: 2001’s A Twist of Marley, which paid tribute to the Jamaican reggae legend, and 2003’s A Twist of Motown. The recipient of some seventeen Grammy nominations, Ritenour is also a founding member of the groundbreaking soul/jazz/funk fusion band Fourplay, a longtime favorite group on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart.
Considering these two great artists’ long-held reputations for combining genre-bending innovations with the highest artistic quality, it was natural when they decided to venture down a new path in 2000 with their Decca album Two Worlds. A huge chart hit that remained on Billboard’s Classical Chart for 51 weeks, Two Worlds forged a unique mixture of classical music and jazz that enchanted fans of both genres. Joined by world-class superstar artists like soprano Renee Fleming and violinist Gil Shaham, Ritenour and Grusin created a mood that was both extremely respectful of the original works by composers like Bach, Bartok, and Villa-Lobos and also tapped into a new musical vein.
“Chris Roberts, the Chairman of Decca Label Group/President of Universal Music Classics and Jazz International, has really been like our third partner on Two Worlds and now Amparo,” Ritenour notes. “We’ve both had long relationships with him, and when he suggested that we explore classical music together, we were quite intrigued.”
As a follow-up to the monumental success of Two Worlds, Amparo is both a celebration of great music and of a lasting friendship. “I’ve known Dave since I was eighteen years old!” Ritenour says. “We go back such a long way, and we’ve shared so much.”
The similarities in their lives didn’t just begin with their professional interactions, however. “We’ve had similar musical beginnings, rooted in classical music and in jazz,” Grusin observes. “We grew up with the classical music repertoire, and Amparo gives us another chance to delve back into that world together.”
Grusin adds that Amparo gives the duo another opportunity as well. “There is very little original classical music scored for piano and guitar,” he observes. “So we have the chance to really add to the literature. That’s a big part of the fun!”
The all-star lineup on Amparo is breathtaking to fans of all kinds of good music, but to musicians like Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin, it’s more a matter of hooking up with friends old and new. As Grusin says, “In this business, there is a huge mutual admiration society! So it wasn’t all that hard to get guest artists like James Taylor, Renee Fleming, Chris Botti, and Joshua Bell involved—the hardest part was getting everyone’s schedules straightened out!”
Adds Ritenour, “Amparo actually took a whole year to put together, simply because it was so difficult to find studio time for artists like Renee and Josh, who travel constantly around the world and have their schedules set years in advance.”
Most of the arrangements on Amparo were done by Dave Grusin. “What is challenging,” Grusin observes, “is to design settings that are not meant to throw our guests into a sound that they’ve never experienced before, but instead to put them in a situation in which they feel very comfortable. For example, it took an enormous amount of research to find something for James Taylor, who has been a close friend of ours for many years. We knew that we wanted to do an old English song, but it was hard to find something that lyrically didn’t feel stilted or funny. So many of those lyrics are ‘Hey, nonny, nonny’ things that just didn’t suit James. So we were so happy to discover the 17th-century song ‘Since First I Saw Your Face,’ a sweet love song from the period. It’s a perfect fit.”
That breath of fresh inspiration is what drives Amparo. “Why do these arrangements?” muses Grusin. “Well, when I go back and listen to the duet arrangement I did for Faure’s Pavane, it becomes something of a new piece. This is stuff we already know so well, but new arrangements let you hear great music in a different light. That’s my hope.”