The recently released Live Across America captured The Rippingtons at their best, working crowds across the country into a frenzy with one of contemporary jazzís most dynamic and energizing concert performances.
One of the highlights in their show (and on the recording) is Russ Freemanís electrifying renditions of Jimi Hendrix classics. The bandís founder, sonic architect and driving creative force is so well known for his composing and producing that itís easy to overlook his consuming passion for and prowess with the guitar
The recently released Live Across America captured The Rippingtons at their best, working crowds across the country into a frenzy with one of contemporary jazz's most dynamic and energizing concert performances. One of the highlights in their show (and on the recording) is Russ Freeman's electrifying renditions of Jimi Hendrix classics.
The band's founder, sonic architect and driving creative force is so well known for his composing and producing that it's easy to overlook his consuming passion for and prowess with the guitar. Longtime fans remember that before The Ripps were an actual band, Freeman emerged on the scene with 1985's solo album Nocturnal Playground. Their ever-enthusiastic encouragement over the years is the impetus for Drive, his first non-holiday solo project in 17 years (1995's Christmas collection Holiday is still a perennial best seller).
In addition to reflecting his incredible growth as an electric and acoustic player since the Ripps achieved stardom, Drive features exciting new collaborations with top R&B producer Barry Eastmond and smooth jazz powerhouses Chris Botti and Jeff Lorber. Long a collector of vintage guitars, Freeman is also proud to strut his stuff on classic instruments like a 1960 Stratocaster, the Dauphin Classical, a Brian Moore guitar, and a 1933 Epiphone that was a childhood gift from his father, an amateur guitarist. Overall, there are three acoustic driven tracks and seven electric.
"Another factor leading to the idea of making the new solo album was the success I had in 1998 with Craig Chaquico on our collaboration, From the Redwoods to the Rockies," says Freeman. "The concept was to do a guitar-oriented album with songs that would feature different styles as well as opportunities to play both acoustic and electric. Variety was a key element. When I'm writing for Rippingtons projects, I always have other instruments like saxophone in mind, and am always conscious of giving each member a feature spot. There's so much focus on the ensemble, both current and the incredible list of alumni who have played with us. It was fun on Drive to get back into the mindset of a solo artist, playing all these cool vintage guitars as hard as I wanted to."
While he still enjoys listening to Nocturnal Playground (some smooth jazz stations still play songs like "Polo in the Palisades"!), he notes that comparing the experiences of recording that album and Drive is like night and day. "I have so much more command of my instrument now, and there's definitely the kind of confidence which can only come through years of playing experience," he says. "Aside from making a quantum leap as a musician, I also have the benefit of having had so many external influences since that time. Nocturnal Playground also featured a lot of sax by Brandon Fields, which sort of set up the group vibe that The Rippingtons would have. The one thing that hasn't changed is that I still strive for a continuously inspired performance."
Drive opens with Freeman making one of those inspired stops in "Guitarland," his crisp, snappy electric melody surrounded by subtle exotic percussion elements and gliding over a throbbing groove. Swirling synth and increasingly heavy percussion enhance Freeman's cool, romantic classical playing (using the Dauphin Classical) on "Villa By The Sea." "When the idea to do this album came up, I originally thought it might be all acoustic or electric," says Freeman. "I dug in hard on this tune and thought I could actually play the acoustic as hard as the electric after hearing it back." "Soul Dance," featuring the sensuous, moody trumpet of Chris Botti, is the first of two tunes Freeman wrote with Barry Eastmond; its opening fingersnaps lead to a mystical funk vibe featuring Freeman's understated electric melody (using the 1933 Epiphone). The hypnotic, throbbing keyboard funk behind Freeman's bright electric on "Brighter Day" reflects the trademark Jeff Lorber experience. "I wanted to do things on Drive which I normally didn't get a chance to, and Jeff gave me a superfunky playground in which to try that out," says Freeman.
Freeman has worked wonders with cover songs on many Rippingtons albums, and does a similar magic on Don Henley's mid-80s classic "The Boys of Summer." He plays some of his edgiest lines with the Brian Moore guitar, and creates a trippy atmosphere with guitar synth and hypnotic percussion. "The challenge on this one was to not just play the notes of the melody, but to have it command attention over the more familiar supporting guitar part," he says. The second Freeman-Eastmond collaboration, "Anywhere Near You" features the unique moody duality of Freeman's dreamy electric and Eric Marienthal's silky sax. The whimsical title track blends modern and retro soul sensibilities—a shuffle groove and an overall 70's R&B vibe—along with exciting brass harmonies. "Cool in the Shade" adds a tropical flavor to that type of soul vibe and features Freeman playing heated electric over the rhythm of his Dauphin classical. "East River Drive," produced by Jason Miles, is an atmospheric version of the Grover Washington, Jr. classic originally included on the 2001 Miles-produced all-star tribute To Grover With Love. A Brazilian-tropical flavor runs throughout the playful closing ballad "Bellagio," a tribute to the Italian resort area where Freeman honeymooned with his wife, Rona.
The Rippingtons saga has long been familiar to smooth jazz fans who have been along for the band's amazing career since the genre's beginnings in the mid-80s. Freeman's personal story extends further back, of course, to age nine, when he started taking lessons on the electric guitar. Though Freeman was born in Galveston, Texas, many folks think he's a Nashville native because many of his formative years were spent there. While listening to and being inspired by everyone from The Beatles and James Taylor to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, Freeman spent much of his time between the ages of 10 and 18 hanging around the studios in Nashville, where his dad knew many top session musicians. Freeman was playing session dates by age 14 and during this time became a huge fan of Larry Carlton. "Hearing how Larry so perfectly married pop and jazz together really inspired me when it came time to figure out my own direction as a player and later, as an artist," he says. "He's just so melodic and lyrical."
Those two adjectives perfectly describe the music which came to define Freeman's sound with The Rippingtons. Freeman had just released Nocturnal Playground when he envisioned Moonlighting as a one-time project for many of his L.A. studio buddies to play on. Jazziz Magazine would later declare this 1986 hit as the most influential jazz recording of all time. Twelve years later, the Peak Records release Black Diamond, their first via distribution through Windham Hill, debuted at #1 on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart its first week—unseating Kenny G, who, pre-stardom, played sax on that first project.
Signing with GRP in 1989 (after Kilimanjaro was one of 1988's biggest hits), The Rippingtons enjoyed a prolific run throughout the Nineties with their albums Tourist In Paradise (1989), Welcome to the St. James Club (1990), Curves Ahead (1991), Weekend in Monaco (1992), Sahara (1994) and Brave New World (1995). These latter two were the first releases on Freeman's imprint label, Peak Records, which is now distributed via a joint venture with Concord Records and has a growing impressive roster of artists including Paul Taylor, Eric Marienthal, Phil Perry, Gato Barbieri and The Braxton Brothers, Regina Belle and Glenn Jones. The Rippingtons later released Topaz (1999) and Life in the Tropics (2000) on Peak. In addition to the Craig Chaquico collaboration, Freeman's catalog also includes 1993's The Benoit/Freeman Project (with pianist and "original Rippington" David Benoit). Freeman has been recognized on several occasions by the National Smooth Jazz Awards, winning a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 (along with Herb Alpert and Bob James), Producer honors in 2001 and Best Band for two consecutive years in 2000 and 2001.
"Over the years, I've really tried to focus on becoming very versatile as a producer, composer and above all else, a guitarist," says Freeman. "I've combined a classical fingerpicking style with a flatpicking style, fully aware that few players do both well. It makes sense to some to pick a specialty, but for me, doing more than one thing added to my ability to write in different styles. I've actually enjoyed being something of a musical chameleon over the years. The goal is to keep developing a distinctive style."