Russ Freeman had to suppress a chuckle when his old compatriot and fellow smooth jazz pioneer David Benoit walked into one of the sessions for The Benoit/Freeman Project 2 wearing his shopworn satin Moonlighting jacket with the first stitched rendering of the Rippingtons’ famed jazz cat.
“I was amazed that I still had it,” Benoit says, “and it brought back so many good memories of the old days. Honestly, I can’t believe how long I’ve been doing this and how long Russ and I have known each other and worked together. I knew keeping the jacket on would help create the kind of casual, relaxed atmosphere and type of spontaneity we wanted on this new project. But it was also fun to reminisce about making the first Rippingtons album and the players who were on it.”
About ten years ago in this very column space, I declared 1986’s Moonlighting as the most influential smooth jazz recording of all time, not only for its Freeman penned genre classics like the title track, “Angela” and “She Likes To Watch,” but also for its roster of future genre superstars just starting to hit their creative stride — Russ Freeman (as leader of the ever-popular Ripps), David Benoit, Kenny G (who would soon achieve unparalleled instrumental superstardom beginning with “Songbird”), Dave Koz (then known as David, who played EWI), Gregg Karukas (a top genre keyboard artist/producer over the past 15 years) and bassist Jimmy Johnson, who scored early smooth hits with Flim & The BB’s.
Over ten years after their first all-out collaboration The Benoit/Freeman Project, and nearly two decades after first working together on Moonlighting, the piano great and guitar icon and Ripps mastermind composer/producer are still thriving in the genre they helped create. Perennial fixtures in the upper reaches of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, David Benoit’s 2003 release Right Here, Right Now went Top Ten, while Let It Ripp!, Freeman’s latest project with The Rippingtons, hit the Top 5.
During breaks from the sessions of The Benoit/Freeman Project 2, as the two played golf, tennis and sipped martinis, they enjoyed reflecting on the phenomenon of smooth jazz and the roles they’ve played in its initial and ongoing success.
“Neither of us could have foreseen the way our music would be brought into the mainstream, or that there would come a time when the average man on the street would know us by sight,” says Benoit, who has parlayed his genre success into film and television scoring, as well as a budding career as a classical composer and conductor.
“When we did Moonlighting, in L.A. there was just one jazz station KKGO and people might see jazz artists at festivals,” he adds. “But the rise of The Wave (94.7 FM) and the smooth jazz format created a whole touring base for us and we went from obscurity to being famous. I think it’s been successful because the artists in the genre are some of the friendliest in the business, we are hands-on with our fans, and the music just feels good. It’s not over everyone’s head, but it appeals to mature adults. People can relax and enjoy it and have a great time at the shows. Everyone just has so much fun.”
Freeman mentions an epiphany he had recently flying home to Florida from a Palm Springs music conference: “They had Smooth Jazz TV on America West Airlines, and it hit me after all these years that the music of this genre had caught on to that extent and was finally popular enough to create such a demand. When I started The Ripps, I only wanted to bring together my loves for jazz and pop. Our timing was good, because there was a whole demographic of adults not being catered to. The heydays of classic rock bands were over, and grunge was a few years away. People needed something good to listen to. Now they relate to it in the context of their lives. It has a history, and it’s been a positive musical force which defies trends and doesn’t have to worry about negative lyrics. I like the urban element, but because I’m a guitarist, I hope it swings back to a rock/blues element.”
Once Freeman and Benoit found mutual openings in their schedules, the creative elements for the project fell into place and they quickly picked up where they left off. Perhaps in response to the format’s trend in recent years to play more oldies and make ultra-safe programming choices, The Benoit/Freeman Project 2 — Benoit’s first recording since finishing his longtime deal with GRP - was fueled by a desire to stretch beyond the confines of the typical music fans expect from their usual releases. As Freeman says, “The first project was very anthemic, with huge production values, but we’re going here for a greater sense of nuance and intimacy.”
Both love to stretch into Latin territory on their own projects, and thus enjoyed the intense percussive fire of “Club Havana,” which features Chris Botti, and the more sensual bossa-flavors on the tender vocal ballad whose title sums up the journey perfectly — “Two Survivors,” sung in a sweet understated way by Vince Gill. Benoit’s enormous success conducting major symphony orchestras and composing for film and television also influenced numerous tracks; many, in fact, were written specifically with a sensuous, harmonic orchestral sweetening in mind.
“David was on a real mission on this one, and everything was fueled by his desire to really expand his sensibilities and go deeper,” says Freeman. “Our fans had been asking about a follow-up album for years, and I’m glad we waited until each of us was at a place where we could make great music that could also surprise them. We’ve always been musically compatible, but the energy here was more incredible than we could have dreamed.”
LIVE RIT RETROSPECTIVE: “Captain Fingers” fans take heart, your fearless guitar god (aka Lee Ritenour) is releasing later this year what he considers one of his biggest, most exciting projects in ages — a high definition live in the studio DVD recorded in 5.1 Surroundsound which features three hours of the legend playing some of his best known classics with an all-star lineup comprising Rit associates from over the past three decades. The guest list includes Dave Grusin, Patrice Rushen, Ivan Lins, Harvey Mason, Ernie Watts, Anthony Jackson, Steve Forman, Eric Marienthal, Kenya Hathaway (Donny’s youngest daughter), Melvin Davis, Oscar Seaton Jr., Barnaby Finch and Alex Acuna.
Recorded over two nights in April at The Enterprise studio in North Hollywood in front of audiences ranging from 10 to 100 people, the as yet untitled recording will be released by Japan’s Video Arts, which has done three other Rit videos and released a Fourplay video when he was part of the group. It features material from 1974 to the present that draws from four jazz styles that Ritenour is best known for — acoustic jazz, Brazilian, 70s fusion and modern funk. The intimate five camera shoot was helmed by director Charlie Randazzo, whose bread and butter is pop music videos and commercials, but who was also the lead singer in high school of the band which became Toto.
“This is the 20th anniversary of Video Arts and coincidentally, my 30th as a recording artist, so the project is something of a mutual celebration where we’re looking both back and forward,” says Ritenour. “We’re hoping it will be sold for television in America, and that by crossing so many lines, will help increase awareness of the diversity of jazz. The greatest thing was being together with my old compadres and the new talent I’ve had the chance to work with in recent years, all in the same room. I was able to bring 30 years of experience to life in a few hours in a setting that was creative and really a lot of fun.”
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Alan Hewitt Project, Noche De Pasion (215 Records) – Veteran pop writer, producer and keyboardist dives head first into smooth jazzland, enlisting an incredible array of genre stars (Euge Groove, Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Michael Lington) to enhance his thumping grooves and graceful piano melodies.
2) Kimberley Locke, One Love (Curb Records)
3) Jim Brickman, Greatest Hits (Windham Hill)
4) Jamie Cullum, Twentysomething (Verve)
5) Diana Krall, The Girl In the Other Room (Verve)