Back in 1994, as Jazziz celebrated its 10th anniversary, this column was asked to make subjective choices as to the most significant recording in the growing smooth jazz genre up till that time. No other option came close to Moonlighting, the 1986 debut recording by Russ Freeman and The Rippingtons, which, in addition to its still-appealing melodies and easy rhythmic energies, featured numerous performers who would go on to become staples in the genre well into the new millennium — Kenny G, Gregg Karukas, David Benoit and Dave Koz (credited then as David Koz, and playing EWI!).
True to Freeman’s initial vision of creating a group that would grow and thrive with an ever-revolving personnel, The Ripps — driven by Freeman’s powerful electric and classical guitar playing and sonically eclectic production expertise - over the past two decades have brought in numerous genre superstars (in addition to creating some, like longtime saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa) to keep things hopping.
The sessions for The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary, a part retro, part forward thinking CD/DVD package dedicated to the band’s intensely loyal fans (which have kept them on the road nearly every summer since the late 80s), ran like an all-star class reunion of sorts. Rather than take the easy way out and repackage a bunch of greatest hits, Freeman gathered all Rippingtons recording and touring members past and present to alternate on performances on ten brand new compositions and “A 20th Anniversary Bonus,” a retrospective medley featuring newly recorded snippets of nine classic Ripps cuts.
Complementing Jeff Kashiwa, original percussionist Steve Reid (both of whom rejoined the band on tour this year), longtime guest saxman Eric Marienthal and current touring members Kim Stone, Bill Heller and Dave Karasony are Paul Taylor, Kirk Whalum, Patti Austin, Jeffrey Osborne and special guest Brian McKnight, who wrote, produced and sings lead on the gentle new song “Anything.” The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary also reunites most of the lineup of L.A. musicians who performed on Moonlighting. Kenny G opted out, but Gregg Karukas, David Benoit, Dave Koz, saxophonist Brandon Fields, bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Tony Morales — who quit playing music some years ago to go into website design — are there.
The whole thing could have worked just as a great publicity stunt, but Freeman chose vibrancy rather than a trip down memory lane, intensity over familiarity. The relaxed but focused sessions included a few spontaneous changes from the original script, most notably the switch on the upbeat, brassy “Celebrate” from an intended Koz lead to a fanciful, soprano-tenor duet by Taylor and Whalum. Freeman wrote the song for Koz, but the saxman told him that his compadres wanted to do a duet, and thought that would be the perfect choice. Koz’s soprano works its magic instead on the romantic “A Kiss Under The Moonlight,” which features Freeman’s lyrical acoustic guitar and Karukas’ elegant piano harmonies.
“The sessions were a breeze, and I was thrilled to see that the rapport I’ve always had with these guys was still there,” he says. “But even beyond that, I saw this as an incredible opportunity as a songwriter writing parts for players I know are great but who I haven’t been challenged by in a long time. The experience was a lot like when new players joined the touring band and I was forced to take new and exciting creative paths to work with the new blood. From the start, they reminded me of why I wanted to work with them in the first place.”
With the prospect of their two-decade anniversary coming up, Freeman’s greatest challenge was trying to figure out what, if any, old material should be reworked as a reminder of the band’s contribution to the genre. “I thought the best of both worlds would be to bring back performers from across the years to play all new material. That way, we’re not dwelling on nostalgia and we’re showing that The Ripps is still a vibrant and creative group. I had a great time putting together the medley, which I thought would be the perfect way, in six minutes, to pay homage to what we had accomplished in the past.
“Each of these musicians contributed something unique to the overall sound of what the Rippingtons became, and brought their own unique perspective to the music,” Freeman adds “I wanted to get back to that embryonic stage, the enigmatic energy we had way back when. The most important thing I realized was how much more experience I have now in dealing with musicians and bringing out strong performances.
“Over the years, as my interests have expanded to include more exotic elements like flamenco guitar and salsa, I also have developed a more diverse palette of musical colors. This happened naturally, but it’s completely confirmed what my heart was telling me after we did Moonlighting, when I had the choice to continue as a band or develop a solo career. I knew a band would give me an opportunity to explore so many more facets of music, and every album has been full of exciting surprises.”
Aside from being one of Boney James’ most soulful, dynamic and consistently satisfying disc in years, the saxman’s latest project Shine — which continues his recent tradition of one word says it all titles like Ride and Pure — is a significant reminder of where the best smooth jazz is coming from these days: well-funded indie labels. His signing with Concord Records typifies the modern genre economy, where artists who once had the security and promotional machinery of major labels are now finding smaller but more dedicated organizations to keep their careers going. James, one of the few genre artists who can boast four gold records, two Grammy nominations and five Billboard #1s, stayed on at Warner Bros. even after the label dropped its jazz division, but he was generally unhappy with the commercial results of Pure, his last collection for the label (and first self-produced disc after years of hitmaking with genre superproducer Paul Brown.)
The cool news for listeners enamored of James’ spirit of collaboration and using special guest artists is that Shine boasts unique jaunts with two labelmates — the also recently signed to Concord George Benson on the bouncy sizzler “Hypnotic” and Christian Scott, a hot young straight ahead trumpeter on the label’s roster (on the brisk and breezy “The Way She Walks,” which may remind some listeners of James’ brilliant duets with Rick Braun).
While everyone else is catering to the cover happy radio format by picking very obvious, largely overplayed songs, James makes some inspired choices — going gently Rio on Jobim’s “Aquas De Marco (Waters of March),” mining the moody soul 70s with The Dramatics’ “In The Rain” (sung by newcomer Dwele) and closing the disc with an lush reading of an obscure Chuck Mangione song, “Soft,” with dreamy vocals by Sounds of Blackness singer Ann Nesby. Also appearing is contemporary R&B star Faith Evans on the rock-edged “Gonna Get It.”
“What’s interesting about my creative process,” James says, “is that I never come in the studio with the whole record in my head. Everything starts with one idea here, another there, and as I get father into it, it builds steam. Then the dust settles, the record is done, and I can reflect back on what it is. On Shine, the title says it all. There’s energy, there’s emotion in each track, each song tells an individual story reflecting different moods. When it was finished, this struck me as a very positive, upbeat album.”
1) Peter Frampton, Fingerprints (A&M/New Door) – He may have a lot less hair than in his heyday, but the pop legend still comes alive where it counts as an incredibly diverse guitarist on his first ever-instrumental album. Exploring the many musical loves of his life — American soul, rock, Latin and roots music — Frampton works with a host of all-star guests from a variety of eras, from members of The Rolling Stones to Pearl Jam
2) Five For Fighting, Two Lights (Aware/Columbia)
3) Sarah Kelly, Where The Past Meets Today (Gotee Records)
4) Cherish, Unappreciated (Capitol)
5) Jake Shimabukuro, Gently Weeps (Hitchhike Records)
New and Noteworthy
1) Hugh Peanuts Whalum (Rendezvous)
2) Lino, Miami Jam (Lino Alessio Publishing)
3) Walter Beasley, Live! (Shanachie)
4) Lara & Reyes (Fusion Acustica)
5) Ray Parker, Jr., I’m Free (Raydio Music Corp.)