In 1986, the term “smooth jazz” had not made its way into the vernacular. However, the groundwork for what would become a radio format and, to some degree, a genre of music, had been laid. Among those paving the way was Russ Freeman, founder and principal songwriter for the Rippingtons.
In the early years, the Rippingtons weren’t a band so much as a concept. As Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were to Steely Dan, Freeman was to the Rippingtons, surrounding himself with a variable lineup of musicians. Although the group has been more stable in recent years (a fixed lineup recorded the last two studio albums, not counting horns or vocalists), bassist Kim Stone and percussionist Scott Breadman do not appear on the new 20th Anniversary.
With this recording, Freeman took a unique approach. Rather than perform remakes of popular Rippingtons songs, he called upon many of those who had recorded or toured with the group over the years. With two exceptions, 20th Anniversary is comprised of all-new compositions. The horn section of Jerry Hey, Gary Grant and Bill Reichenbach joins for the anthem “Celebrate,” which features a saxophone duet between Kirk Whalum (tenor) and Paul Taylor (soprano). Alums Jimmy Johnson (bass), Steve Reid (percussion) and Tony Morales (drums) help round out this piece.
David Benoit joins on acoustic piano for the elegant Latin piece “Costa Del Sol,” co-written by Freeman and Yaredt Leon. Jeffrey Osborne, Patti Austin and Elena Leon perform wordless vocals, adding to the tropical flavor. Throughout, Freeman’s guitars and, on some selections, bass, are in top form. He can adapt to any situation and plays with exceptional precision.
While most of the album accomplishes Freeman’s goal of bringing past players back together to record new music, one song doesn’t belong: Brian McKnight’s “Anything.” This duet between Freeman and McKnight sounds nothing like the Rippingtons. Perhaps it would work on McKnight’s own release or even a “duets” album, a la Tony Bennett, but not on the Rippingtons’ milestone celebration.
Fortunately, that’s the only weak link on this album, which closes with “A 20th Anniversary Bonus,” a medley of several classic Rippingtons songs, including “Tourist in Paradise,” “Curves Ahead” and “Brave New World.” The accompanying DVD, however, is a bit of a disappointment. It includes some early videos and an all-too-brief retrospective.
An oddity about the Rippingtons is that while the group is considered a pioneer of smooth jazz, it's not a jazz band. Freeman has described it as more of a rock group. However, marketing forces tend to call predominantly instrumental popular music jazz, no matter what the intent of the songwriter. Whatever the classification, the Rippingtons are one of contemporary music’s dominant forces: each recording is different from the last, and their live shows rock with energy. With a twenty-year track record, Freeman and the Rippingtons continue to move forward while acknowledging the past.
By Woodrow Wilkins allaboutjazz.com
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