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Buy this CDIt was one of those intuitive moments when you just know. In the mid-eighties I had a "jazz brunch" radio show. A lot of the stars were already in place. We had Spyro Gyra and Benson, Grover and Sanborn, Carlton, Metheny, Klugh, Special EFX, Grusin, Lorber's Fusion and Kenny G in his pre-Songbird incarnation. The contemporary jazz scene was vital and exciting already when this album with nothing but a sly lookin' cat and the name of a band nobody had ever heard of showed up in the mail. Put the needle to the vinyl -promo CDs were a rarity back then - and the goosebumps that came with those first shimmering notes of Moonlighting told the story. This was music with melody, texture, momentum and a level of musicianship that rarely showed up in the new artist stack. Who knew that the names on the credits for this album would turn out to be the next wave of core artists and this one time only project would evolve into one of the most influential bands in the genre; a band that would ride out changes and challenges in the industry, the music, and  from within to emerge 20 years later still giving us thrilling new music. Bring on the rock guitar solos, wailin' sax, and percussion jams! The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary is an affirmation of high hopes we had for this emerging genre back when Moonlighting was released.

Instead of taking the easy path and re-recording the old songs or doing a live greatest hits set, Freeman chose to invite musicians who had played with the band over the years to contribute to a new set of songs. It was the right choice, a chance to hear old friends in new settings. The band has explored lot of territory along the way: format-friendly high gloss R&B, southwestern and "new-age" textures, pop-rock and salsa, and even fusion. This CD gets back to basics. It pulls the thread from the original sound right into 2006. Reflective without being regressive, it is full of new songs that will inspire some wishful thinking about bringing rock and pop influences back into the smooth jazz mainstream.

"City of Angels" is a tour de force of goodies from the Rippingtons bag of licks. Two minutes into the song you get a rock guitar solo from Russ and a guitar/sax tradeoff with Brandon Fields layered over the synth textures that have been the cornerstone of the band's trademark sound and another irresistible Freemanmelody. "Celebrate" has the bouncy punch characteristic of the songs on Curves Ahead and Weekend in Monaco for a good reason: most of these musicians were with the band on those two CDs. Kirk Whalum’s alto and Paul Taylor’s soprano share the lead, then trade off solos punctuated by a joyous blast of horns from Jerry Hey, Gary Grant and Bill Reichenbach while Steve Reid and Tony Morales keep the backbeat burning. "Costa Del Sol" brings Patti Austin and Jeffrey Osborne back for some "St. James Club"style vocalese. Starting as a breezy tropical groove, it becomes a showcase for David Benoit's immediately recognizable piano.
"Bingo Jingo" is the obvious radio track with its instantly familiar piano line in the intro. Then the airplay staple, keyboard-lite riffing is broken up by a riveting Freeman guitar solo, the horn section and a percussion foundation that will give the song its fan-appeal, but may render it "too exciting" as an airplay track. "Rainbow" opens with a similar smooth jazz vibe, but the beginning is deceptive. The brassy chorus leads into Fields' energized sax and several sizzling electric solos from Freeman that quickly move this one out of the safety zone.

Freeman has always been able to write ballads that were beautiful and heartfelt without crossing the line into sappiness. "Eternity" mixes the Latin flavor of his recent work with the lush melodic voice of his earlier ballads and a beautifully subtle solo from Fields. The interplay between Fields and Freeman at the end is spellbinding. The other ballad, "Kiss Under The Moonlight," features a lilting soprano line from Koz and a sublime chorus built around Freeman's acoustic guitar.

Give Steve Reid his bongos and let him cut loose! His percussion jam intro to "Six Four" is one of the brightest moments on this CD, bringing on a soaring soundscape of guitar and synth textures  The song breaks in the middle for another rousing percussion break, then the melody builds into a joyous crescendo. "Twenty" is as celebratory as the title would suggest, buoyant and open from the opening note. The celebration continues with the bonus track, the "20th Anniversary Medley." This is going to be memory flavored ear candy for long time fans; a collage of hooks from some of their most definitive songs. It's a rousing end to a CD that is full of reasons for long time fans to celebrate and new fans to jump on board.

The inclusion of "Anything," Brian McKnight's R&B vocal, has puzzled quite a few fans. It is stylistically different from anything else on the CD. McKnight doesn't just sing it. He wrote, produced and played all the instruments with Freeman's guitar being the only Rippingtons presence on the track. Within the current R&B climate it is an extremely innovative, progressive piece of work, strikingly superior to the glut of smarmy ballads and loop driven arrangements on the Urban A/C charts these days. Maybe Russ wanted to give McKnight a place to step out of bounds and stretch out within his genre the way the Rippingtons have done in theirs.  For some listeners it will be a diversion, for others a distraction, but it is evident from this track that McKnight's talents go far beyond seductive crooner territory.

20th Anniversary also includes a DVD featuring a retrospective documentary and four songs. The retrospective is excellent. It condenses 20 years of history into 25 minutes of performance clips and conversation with Russ and an impressive group of label execs, musicians and critics. The four songs are a good cross section: “"I’ll Be Around"” is a standard adult contemporary fare with beach scenes and model-pretty women,  “Curves Ahead” and “Tourist in Paradise” feature the animated antics of Bill Meyers’ Jazz Cat with the guys at play on slopes and sea, and “High Roller” is a live performance from a time when the band was especiallly hot and hair was short on top and long in the back. All of this is grand fun for the people who have been fans from the start or jumped on along the way. At the end Dave Koz talks about how they will be stumbling in on canes and walkers for the 40th Anniversary sessions, but I don’t think so. By then 70 will be the new 40, and the Rolling Stones will be celebrating their 60th year on the road. We’ll be there for it too, all lasiked, nipped and tucked, overdosed on salmon, spinach and soy, and still dancing in the aisle but in lower heeled shoes.

- Shannon West

CD Reviews return to home page interviews CD Reviews Concert Reviews Perspectives - SmoothViews State of Mind Retrospectives - A Look Back at a Favorite CD On The Side - The Sidemen of Smooth Jazz On the Lighter Side - A Little Humor News - What's New in Smooth Jazz Links - A Guide to Smooth Jazz on the Web Contact Us About Us Website Design by Visible Image, LLC