Segerstrom jazz series kicks off with three of genre’s giants

Three of jazz’s most important contemporary players will kick off the 2017-18 jazz season Oct. 7 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

Pianist Ramsey Lewis will bring his quintet to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is considered a bigger and more acoustically sophisticated venue than Samueli Theater, where the Segerstrom Center usually hosts its jazz concerts.

Also performing on Oct. 7 will be Grammy Award-winning guitarist Lee Ritenour and two-time Grammy-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts.

Ritenour and Watts will play together on a number of tunes; Lewis will stick with his accomplished quintet, with Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass, Tim Gant on keyboards and Charles Heath on the drums.

A fixture of the Chicago jazz scene, Lewis has become something of a living legend in his field. His first big splash was his trio’s cover of “The In Crowd,” which hit No. 5 on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart and won his group a Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz performance. The album “The In Crowd” achieved gold record status and reached No. 2 on the charts.

“To this day, no matter how I close the show, I always close with that song,” Lewis said during a recent interview. “There was one time when we didn’t close the show with it, and people were very unhappy. They didn’t leave the show until we did it.”

Lewis’ long, illustrious career has included additional crossover pop hits and gold records, namely “Sun Goddess” from 1974; collaborations with Earth, Wind & Fire, Nancy Wilson, Billy Taylor and Dave Koz; and stints as a popular, nationally syndicated jazz deejay on radio and TV. “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis” can still be heard on jazz stations across the nation.

In 2007, he won a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“I’m impressed that people will still want to see my face rather than throw darts at it,” Lewis, 82, joked. “I bring my heart and soul to every concert I play, and it won’t be any different when I come to Southern California.”

The Ramsey Lewis Quintet will play a mixture of classics and new material that features each band member in improvisation and solo performance.

“We’re like brothers,” he said. “We love to play with each other, and we love to be together.”

About opening the Segerstrom Center’s jazz season, Lewis said: “It feels great. It’s invigorating to know we will be the first band to be a part of the celebration, and we will do our best to try to live up to the occasion and leave people standing in the aisles, or laying in the aisles.”

A Los Angeles native, Ritenour has won one Grammy Award, received 19 Grammy nominations and recorded more than 40 albums, with 35 songs that have hit the charts. He won an “Alumnus of the Year” award from his alma mater USC, and was a founding member of Fourplay, a very successful contemporary jazz group.

His first session work was in the late 1960s with the Mamas and the Papas, who nicknamed him “Captain Fingers” for exhibiting incredible chops on the guitar, even as a teenager.

“Even though the demo went nowhere, it was a great expectation and a good start,” he said. “They were amazing with great songs that still stand up to this day.”

Ritenour, 65, says his musical heroes include Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Beck, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Chet Atkins and Andrés Segovia.

“I am a chameleon,” Ritenour said. “I think my style shows I have adapted styles throughout my life.”

Over the years, the jazz guitarist has performed at hundreds of events and concerts throughout California and the world. Recently, he’s been playing with his son Wesley, 24, on drums, and his show at Segerstrom Concert Hall will also include his progeny.

In 2010, Ritenour recorded “6 String Theory,” an album of collaborations with many of jazz music’s greats. From that experience he also started an annual competition of the same name, which has awarded scholarships, performances and recordings to up-and-coming guitarists and has continued to grow.

Ernest James Watts has been blowing notes through his saxophone for audiences for more than 50 years. He first picked up the sax when he was in seventh grade, when, by chance, he attended a music class with a friend and they handed him an instrument. Since then, he’s been hooked.

Watts, 71, was born in Norfolk, Va., and now lives in Cambria. For 20 years, he played tenor saxophone on “The Tonight Show,” under band leader Doc Severinsen. He also performed on several of Marvin Gaye’s Motown albums during the 1970s, and has recorded with Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Carole King, the Jackson Five and Frank Zappa.

Watts also has performed on hundreds of film and TV scores.

“A few you may have heard of include ‘The Color Purple,’ ‘The Blues Brothers,’ ‘Animal House,’ ‘The French Connection,’ ‘Tootsie’ and ‘The Fisher King,’ ” he said in an email interview. “I was voted Most Valuable Player in the studios four times.”

The saxophonist has recorded scores of albums, both as a leader as a contributor. He owns his own record label, Flying Dolphin Records, which allows him “to have creative control of my music.”

“I can do my music my way,” he said.

Watts is big in Germany, where he won the Frankfurt Music prize in 2014.

“Our German audiences are very enthusiastic about jazz, and very knowledgeable about it,” he said. “They come out for the music.”

During his spare time, he conducts clinics and master classes for schools, colleges, amateur music students and professionals. It’s his way of giving back, he said.

What: Ramsey Lewis Quintet, Lee Ritenour and Ernie Watts

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 7

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Admission: $29-$109

Information: 714-556-2787 or visit scfta.org.

RICHARD CHANG is a contributor to Times Community News.

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