In the early 80s, a few years before Russ Freeman gathered a bunch of his L.A. musician friends to create the groundbreaking Rippingtons debut Moonlighting, the multi-talented guitarist and composer studied film scoring at UCLA and spent time on TV soundstages and at recording studios listening to orchestras play. On the Ripps’ new Peak Records/EOne album Built To Last, Freeman comes full circle from those days, working with orchestral textures for the first time and opening up new dam bursts of creativity that transcend all expectations of what a Ripps project can be.
Celebrating one of contemporary jazz’s most enduring legacies—a quarter century plus journey that includes nearly 20 albums and an ever evolving flow of band members—Freeman keeps his trademark melodies front and center but breaks all the stylistic rules on a set that includes a swirl of all the musical forces that define his life: pop, symphonic rock, classical/chamber music, country, ambient/chill, jazz fusion and even heavy metal, courtesy of an incendiary solo by Ozzy Osbourne/Black Label Society electric guitarist Zakk Wylde. The track listing offers a hint at just how far and gloriously Freeman ventures off the beaten path. Complementing the 11 basic songs is a lush classical guitar/orchestra reprise of the title cut “Built To Last” and orchestral bonus renditions of four other key tracks.
Bill Mayer’s famed animated jazz cat has graced every Ripps album cover, appearing in an environment that thematically reflects the musical vibe of the collection. By replacing Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore on the cover art of Built To Last, he falls perfectly in line with Freeman’s bold musical vision and establishes the band as a part of American history. As the multi-talented performer explains in his liner notes that also explain the essence of each song, two significant life altering events were the impetus behind his desire to start the next quarter century with a whole new twist. One is The Ripps crossing their 25th Anniversary milestone in 2011. The second is even more personal. His beloved sister Pamela—who Freeman says he “tortured” most growing up with his incessant guitar practicing--was diagnosed with breast cancer a week after a family get together in San Francisco, about the time Freeman had started composing these songs. At a time he was feeling musically more courageous than ever, she was showing him the truer meaning of the word. Built To Last is dedicated to Pamela “with utmost love and affection.”
“When The Ripps crossed the 25 year mark,” Freeman says, “it felt like a dream because I never would have believed we’d still be around, making great music and having so many loyal fans that have been the key to our success. I always want to give them my best, and I had this epiphany that we really need to do something different—and that involved throwing a curveball, going out of the regular mission statement of the band and breaking a lot of rules. As it turned out, that curveball wound up smashing quite a few windows! Sonically it’s also radically different for a Ripps project. I did some orchestral arrangements on my collaboration albums with David Benoit, but this is a first for the band. Growing up, I always thought I was going to pursue film scoring as a career—but happily for me, all the wonderful musicians I’ve worked with and our fans, fate intervened and I was blessed with this amazing group. Now, as we start the next quarter century, it’s time to broaden the palette and increase the dynamic range.”
The shift was immediately clear to Bernie Grundman, the legendary mastering engineer who has been an integral part of the Ripps’ sonic magic since the beginning. “After the requisite espressos and cappuccinos (beans ordered from Rome),” Freeman says, “Bernie started twisting dials as the mastering session began. After a few moments, he said, ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’ It’s really all about texture. The material at its core is simple, but the development and arrangements of the songs are more vertical than horizontal. Some passages are super quiet and some are really loud, and the shift sometimes happens unexpectedly. Another major difference on ‘Built To Last’ is that it features my classical and electric guitar playing more prominently. I usually write songs where everyone is featured equally, so it was a challenge to step out this way.”
The opening title track invites the listener into Freeman’s powerful new sonic universe with what sounds like a whimsical, classically influenced film score (where we can supply the images!) complete with lush strings and horns. His initial idea was to state the theme with the orchestra, restate it again and then have the band play it—and the execution of this leads to a soaring rock fusion explosion featuring Freeman on the Ibanez 335, a guitar he hasn’t recorded with since 1991’s Curves Ahead. Building on the theme of the Ripps as an evolving American music institution, “American Panorama” makes its sweeping declaration via hypnotic and swirling synth “footprint” riffs, a building string section and a thoughtful meditation on the Carvin classical guitar. Taking a cue from author Elmore Leonard—who once said the dialogue between character flows once he has named them—the multi-dimensional “Fool’s Gold” came to life once Freeman came up with the crafty title. The electronica driven tune starts with a trippy ambience (complemented with a distant trumpet cry) and grows into a powerhouse rock/jazz fusion jam backed by synth strings.
Every Ripps fan knows the history of the band from the mid-80s on, but an aspect of Freeman’s life that some may not be as familiar with is the fact that his family lived in Nashville through much of his adolescence and teen years. The next two tracks, “Hotel De Ville” and “Cougars & Gigolos” bring back the cool twang and pop/rock beat that he heard every time he hung out at a studio there, courtesy of guitarist John Pell, who gave lessons to Freeman and his dad. “Hotel Deville” is balmy and acoustic guitar driven and features some spectacular piano soloing, but its heart and soul is the sparkling, crisp electric guitar licks towards the end. With its infectious backbeat and twangy steel guitar, bluesy key textures and acoustic guitar melody, “Cougars & Gigolos” is as close to bluegrass/country music as the Ripps have ever ventured. Freeman bought the resonator guitar he plays on this track from a Vietnamese luthier; it has “a lot of fancy inlay, but I think it’s made of balsa wood.” Speaking of going off the beaten path, it speaks to Freeman’s boldness that he uses the title of an American classic for his next original, the rousing big band swing flavored “Route 66.” The Ripps get their kicks with the kind of brash, swirling horns that are characteristic of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band; in the middle of the song, Freeman inserts an acoustic jazz breakdown led by a spirited piano solo.
A title like “In The Shadow of Giants” can only mean one thing: Freeman paying homage to the rock guitar gods who inspired his musical journey. He does this with an ample mix of grit and elegance, blending sweet classical guitar lines with crunched out distorted electric lines—all over a funk/rock groove and dancing electronica atmospheres. Using “the first four chords any kid learns on guitar,” Freeman gets back to basics on the whimsical, filmic “Black Oak”—complementing his essentially simple guitar reflections with ambience, an easy shuffling percussion groove and soulful chamber music string touches.
Freeman describes the chill/electronic flavored “We Made A New World” as a tune with “totally horizontal development, all texture and almost no harmony, except for the middle section.” The track is seductive for a spell before the onset of booming drums and a towering wall of synthesizers.
Freeman and the Ripps really go for broke on the heavy metal/world music mash “Monument/Monolith,” a freewheeling blast of intensity on which Freeman complements his acoustic guitar with a little of everything you’ve never heard on a Ripps project before: “angry cannibals with boiling pots” on percussion, orchestra, solo violin and a blistering electric solo by heavy metal great Zakk Wylde. “What else could you ask for?” Freeman muses. “The natural impulse would be to end big, so of course I intentionally did the opposite, ending with just a single piano chord.” The basic tracking on Built To Last closes with “Firefly,” a tune Freeman co-wrote with his wife Yaredt Leon. It opens with orchestral textures before easing into a spirited, whistling synth melody that dances with veteran Ripps saxman Jeff Kashiwa’s always emotional soprano. Freeman then invites the listener to the most creative corners of his musical mind on a beautiful classical guitar reprise of the title track and inventive orchestral variations on the tracks “Fool’s Gold,” “Black Oak,” “Hotel Deville” and “Built To Last.”
While Built To Last is all about Freeman and The Rippingtons moving forward into uncharted territory, their story thus far is one for the musical ages. Perhaps the most amazing part of their journey is that after the unexpected success of Moonlighting, Russ Freeman—who had released a successful solo album, Nocturnal Playground, in 1985--was still on the fence regarding whether to pursue a career as a solo artist or become the full-time leader of a band. “I knew I couldn’t have both,” he says, “and I weighed the ups and downs of both potential choices. But I think my heart was telling me all along to do the band. There were so many more facets I could explore in a band situation than I could on my own.”
With Moonlighting paving the way, The Rippingtons dominated the contemporary jazz landscape from the late 80s on with their hit recordings Kilimanjaro, Tourist in Paradise, Welcome to the St. James Club, Curves Ahead, Weekend In Monaco, Live in L.A., Sahara, Brave New World, Black Diamond Topaz, Live Across America, Life in the Tropics, Let It Ripp! Wild Card, 20th Anniversary, Modern Art and Cote d’Azur. Freeman also recorded two dual albums with David Benoit, the solo albums Holidayand Drive, and collaborated with Craig Chaquico on From the Redwoods to the Rockies in 1998.
In 1994, Freeman and longtime manager Andi Howard launched the independent label Peak Records. Now affiliated with eOne Music, the label’s roster over the years has Gato Barbieri, David Benoit, Lee Ritenour, Paul Taylor, Eric Marienthal, Regina Belle, Peabo Bryson, former Ambrosia frontman David Pack, Gerald Albright and Magnolia Memoir.
“Just as the most exciting part of The Rippingtons over the years has been working with so many talented musicians and getting to know our fans,” Freeman says, “my favorite aspect of working on Built To Last was rising to the challenge of creating orchestral arrangements that fit in with the new music I was writing. I also learned about the value of silence in a composition, and when to let the music simply breathe. We’re all very excited to bring this new music to our fans and hopefully will be able to perform shows with live orchestras in the near future. It’s an exhilarating time for everyone.”
It’s been that way from the beginning. That’s kind of par for the course when a band is Built To Last.
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