March 12, 2009

The Rippingtons -- Modern Art

In 2006, guitarist Russ Freeman and his band of oft-changing members famously known as The Rippingtons set out to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary on the contemporary jazz scene. Since the debut album, Moonlighting, was released in 1986, Freeman & Co. have ground out magnificence as if it were a foregone conclusion that magnificence is all they can create. Well, judging from yet again another such production with the release of Modern Art, one would be hard-pressed to challenge that conclusion. This collection of new, refreshingly fresh material, 99% of which is penned by Freeman, comes with a yet another regrouping of the group as veteran bassist Kim Stone is replaced—but not shoddily so—with sharp, funky bassist Rico Belled. Though I will sorely miss Stone’s stylish and weighty bass, Belled fits really nicely and brings his own commanding touch to the bass lines that the band seems to relish.

The album is also marked by the return, if only temporary, of alumni sax man Jeff Kashiwa. His contribution here only serves to shed light on why Freeman made certain that the illustrious artist stayed put with the group for nine glorious years before venturing out on his own and establishing a successful career as a giant in his own right.

For a few albums, Freeman mesmerized so many (yours truly included) by incorporating a heavy dose of the elegance, exoticism, and sweetness of Latin-laced compositions (e.g., Life in the Tropics and Wild Card). Here, though, he returns to the original trademark sound he introduced to us over 20 years ago (witness the title and opening track and “Body Art”) and also rolls out the funk and some blues elements with as much ease (check out cuts like “One Step Closer,” “Jet Set,” and the ultra-funky mid-tempo finale, “Love Story,” featuring master trumpeter Rick Braun – nope, nothing like the Mancini tune you may have in mind!), as well as trying his hand at some European flavors (“Paris Groove”).

As any serious Ripps fan knows, Freeman has an affinity for theme-based albums, as he loves to share his life’s experiences and loves with his audience. Cases in point would be Black Diamond (where he spotlights the joys of skiing), Let It Ripp (golfing), Life in the Tropics and Weekend in Monaco (both pretty self-explanatory). With Modern Art, we’re treated to his affinity for, not surprisingly, art. In fact, I’ve seen samples of his “photo realistic illustrative” artwork. Great living, breathing stuff.

Freeman’s Rippingtons and their sure-handed handling of the entire set leaves no question that this supergroup has all of the angles of this genre covered with bullish authority. They’re just plain good! This latest effort is every bit as good as--if not arguably better than—its predecessors. In fact, it may well replace Life in the Tropics as my personal fav. Major feat. This is definitely not one to bypass.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at March 12, 2009 5:25 PM