The fun thing about hearing a lot of our artists find their way back into their own musical skins as the grip of the radio format loosened has been the return of diverse approaches to contemporary instrumental music. August 2012 has been a perfect illustration of that as two long time musical compatriots, Jeff Kashiwa and Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons, released their most exciting albums in years and went in two completely different directions in doing so. Freeman's territory this time around is orchestration with an undercurrent of progressive rock. Kashiwa has taken the smooth jazz framework, kicked the rules aside, and Let It Ride right back into the place it occupied before the smooth police turned it into sonic wallpaper. This album has the glossy production, urban lean, and melodic focus that are the essence of smooth. It also has blues, retro-cool jazz, powerful horn arrangements and blistering solos and lots of shifts in texture. Let It Ride and the Rippingtons' new one, Built To Last, share some personnel. They also share one critical ethic that showed up in press releases and comments by both Kashiwa and Freeman: no second guessing and no fear. Easy to say, hard to do, and pulled off beautifully here.
The key phrase here is “I'm playing here like I play live.” Most of us have been to concerts and wished the CDs that we bought after the show sounded more like the show. This one does. That energy is palpable here whether the song is slow, fast, funky, bluesy, smooth or searing. He has brought in a supporting cast of musicians that fans have grown to know and love over the years – Russ Freeman, David Benoit, Tom Schuman, and Chuck Loeb, Ripps and Kashiwa band veterans Dave Hooper, Bill Heller, Rico Belled, Melvin Davis and Allen Hinds, superstar sidemen Ricky Lawson, Andre Berry, Ronnie Gutierrez, Gerey Johnson, and up and comer Nicholas Cole. He wrote the melodies, did the demos, brought in the musicians and let them do their thing with freedom and spontaneity being the bywords of the sessions.
In other words, they Let It Ride and delivered a sonic candy store of multi-flavored goodies. Listen to the boundary busting “Hot Tin Roof” with its deep funk opening, dirty groove and retro blues rock organ and guitar riffs from Schuman and Hinds or Loeb's solo on “Stomp” that manages to combine speed, flash and nuance. On the other side there is the graceful elegance of “When Will I Know” and “One More Day, an acoustic setting that features Benoit's piano Freeman on acoustic guitar. “The Name Game's” smoothed out sheen backs Kashiwa's seriously fired up sax lines that veer effortlessly from high to low, fast to slow. This is how you do smooth! “Up,” the preview track that was sent to media before the album was released, is pure Kashiwa – a little bit of Ripps flavor and a lot of melodic reference to his earlier solo projects. Joyous, delicious, and fun!
The thread of continuity here is Kashiwa's melodic, hooky songwriting, his musicianship, and remarkable tone. Whether on soprano, alto, or tenor, he plays with so much clarity and expertise that he can go all over the place without ever becoming strident or jarring. Every note is pure. There is beauty in even his most rock, blues, and funk based excursions. I'm not a musician, I don't know the technical words and as a listener you don't need to. Just listen.
When I talked to Steve Oliver last month we spoke of how music is an intuitive process. You can hear a piece of music and like or dislike it on the surface, especially when it's just playing in the background, but on a subliminal level you can feel the mindset of the music. You can feel it if the artist is working with restrictions or just mailing it in, you can feel that something is being held back. Then you pick up an album like this, hit play, and can just feel the joy, spirit, and freedom that are guiding the players. You can tell they were loving it while they were playing it and hearing it makes you feel that way too. That is what this one is all about. It makes me want to reach toward Seattle and give Jeff Kashiwa a big cross-continental high-five.