I slide the top back on the new convertible as I throw my bags in the back and proceed to pick up that Jazz Cat. We're headed south for the weekend. That's south as in South Beach. His ear-to-ear grin along with those neon green sunglasses and joker hat (imprinted with WILD CARD) made me wonder what I had to look forward to or maybe even dread as we pulled away from the curb and down Highway 1.
He pulled back the seat and slid in a copy of the latest Rippington's release from Peak Records. It had been awhile since Russ gave us new material, so I was anxious to hear the latest. “Gypsy Eyes” begins with a reoccurring theme from his acoustic before launching into one of Eric Marienthal's solos. I'm driving and listening and I like what I'm hearing. Jazz Cat's paws are tapping as the wind sweeps through the car taking each note to a higher plain. The hook is catchy and we back this one up just to hear it one more time.
We're heading down the road and I finally ask him what the Wild Card on his hat really means. He punches the disc over to the second track and there's Eric's sax leading the way with background horns from Jerry Hey and Gary Grant. There's some good piano over the middle from Bill Heller. This one is laid back with just a touch of spice from the horns. It's a perfect song as we pull into South Beach and wonder at the art deco buildings and swaying palms.
We settle in before heading out to a neon lit place across town that this Jazz Cat knows too well. They all know him there and we're ushered down front before the show begins. A bright light shines on stage as the world renowned “Cuban diva” Albita begins “El Vacilon” with a fast-paced Latin back beat and an introduction of the RRRRRRRippingtons! The beat is infectious as the vocals are highlighted by bursts from the horn section. Before long the Jazz Cat has formed a conga line around the room as Scott Breadman's percussion solo lends itself to Russ's classical guitar. “Con Los Rippingtons y Albita, que Trememdo vaciion!”
We head for home in the wee hours thinking about “Paradise .” Marienthal's soprano is haunting and methodic as it's laced with chords from Freeman's acoustic like the twilight just before morning. His electric burst from our speakers just as the sun rises on the water beginning a new day. The reflective keyboard work and driving back beat make this one our favorite as we head down the road. We think about the “Spanish Girl” from the night before and how the classical guitar took us higher and higher. A steady beat kept our hearts racing while all along the inspiring sax swept through the steamy night like a hot knife.
We have to head back to the club again the next night. The highlight of the evening is Cuban Willy Chirino on stage singing “Mulata de Mi Amor.” This number is laced with lots of horns and the constant background of Russ's guitar. It has the Latin beat that the Jazz Cat has come to love so well. Putting the top down on the convertible we hit the streets to enjoy “Moonlight.” Russ is leading on electric with some Portman-like keyboard work from Bill Heller. The tune is eerily retro-Ripps with sax accents brought in to round out the mix. The song is in my head as I drift off to sleep after a long night out.
The radio goes off the next morning bright and early. Jazz Cat is still rolled up into a ball sleeping as Chante Moore comes on singing the classic “Till You Come Back to Me.” She does it as much justice as this timeless classic can afford, while Marienthal's sax is a nice side bar towards the end. We finally head out for the day with “Lay It Down” blasting from the car stereo. Marienthal's sax is the focal point of the tune, while there are modernistic backgrounds that make you think this one might take off. Hey's horns are present as constant syncopation to the sax as well as a few riffs from Russ's guitar. In the meantime, Jazz Cat has slipped the “King of Hearts” into the brim of his Wild Card hat and selects the appropriately named song on the disc. It has an anthem like the beginning leading into the quiet acoustic of Freeman. The pace picks up slightly as it slides into the chorus, while gaining both momentum as well as players. Horns add the framework in the latter stages to contrast with the rich guitar. The layers of sound are exceptional and full.
It's been a great weekend and we're finally ready to head back home. Jazz Cat is cranking up the disc again as “Into You” begins on the stereo and Russ's electric riffs float out of the car. It's a laid back tune that makes the drive home easier. Eric has some good sax throughout the tune that mixes and plays off of Russ' guitar like magic. My thoughts go back to the “Mulata de mi Amor” once again and how Russ' classical guitar stole the show. He could make it sing and hearing it once again put me back in South Beach . The drive has been long and the wind has been my constant companion (along with this crazy cat!). “But In The End” we finally make it to our destination. Soft piano drifts along as the sun says goodbye to another day. It's accompanied by soft guitar that makes me reflect on good times we've had. A Santana-like electric solo raises the emotions to an awesome high as we pull into the driveway. The soft acoustic finishes the set as I drive away and see that Jazz Cat one last time in the rearview mirror. I look over to the seat where my constant companion had been for the past few days only to find a Wild Card lying in his place. Play on guys, play on...
- H. A. Cline