The Rippingtons have wrapped up what they jokingly called their three year 20th anniversary tour and released a new CD, Modern Art. When Russ Freeman put together the group that released Moonlighting in 1986 he had no way of knowing that it would turn into one of the most influential and original contemporary instrumental groups out there. The lineup has shifted with a certain amount of fluidity, people leave, new members come in, former members come back while Freeman's songwriting and virtuosity keep the sound on the growing edge. Besides writing, arranging and producing, he is the co-founder of Peak Records, a web designer, and now a painter and photographer. We talked about music, art, the similarities between them and the art of staying fresh, original and creative throughout a career that spans almost a quarter of a century.
SmoothViews (SV): I'm writing this
editorial piece about how the genre has taken a lot
of image hits because the segment of it that is high
profile is not the best of what is available. There
is so much wonderful music being made but it's mostly
the tracks that never become airplay singles and
the live performances. So that's what I'm thinking
when I get my copy of Modern
Art and you guys have put out this album that
defines exactly what I'm talking about. It's this
whole set of great contemporary instrumental songs.
Russ Freeman (RF): It's so funny because
everyone's perception of your work is
different. I was on hold with Delta the
other day and I was hearing “Paris
Groove” and it seemed so funny
that they quickly grabbed that song.
It seemed like for it was timely for
them and it's current. You never have
that perception when you're writing the
music. I'm just writing songs the best
I can, doing my job. Everyone's perception
is different but we are totally pleased
that people have such a positive reaction
to this record. It's been amazing.
SV: There's some intangible
thing here that runs straight to the early
albums when a lot of us discovered the
RF: I think a lot of it
is the personnel. We really have a good
live band now. And there's the addition
of Jeff. He's got a very vintage sound
for the Ripps. He defined that sound in
the 90s and he's all over this record.
I noticed when he came back for the 20th
Anniversary album how much it brought us
back to that vintage period. I think a
lot of it is Jeff and I think a lot of
it's Rico. Rico is our new bass player
and he's so tight with Dave and so cohesive
as a rhythm section. All of that plays,
you're really hearing the personalities
of the players on this record. Another
thing about it is that we had so long to
make it. Generally, we come off the road
and we have a deadline of two or three
months at the most. This time we had a
year to make the album so it was very relaxed
and the players had a chance to get to
know the music much better than they normally
SV: You mentioned in the press
release that performing the songs live
contributed to the evolution of the songs.
RF: It always does. We try to
get as much live performance as you can.
SV: A lot of artists don't want to
do the new material until it's been
RF: Well, yeah. We don't want to go out
and play the songs before the public too far before they
can purchase it but we were really anxious to get this
music to our fans and I think they were really anxious
to get it. Three years is the longest the fans have
ever waited between CDs.
SV: The interesting thing is that I had a real
schedule conflict with your Jacksonville concert because
I couldn't get off work early enough and I almost didn't
go but the little inner voice was going “you've got
to go. It's the Rippingtons.” Going into that theatre
and seeing you guys onstage felt like coming home.
RF: Thanks. That was our first live date of
2009. It was great to be back onstage.
SV: I was really surprised and overjoyed with the amount
of new material you did.
RF: It's funny. We're debating now
about how many new songs to do. We have seven or eight.
I don't know if it's a good idea to fill up eight songs
in the show with new material but the songs are playing.
I'm amazed at the reaction we are getting.
SV: That's one thing I loved about the Rippingtons. If
you are going to keep going to see a band that you've
been a fan of for a long time you want some favorites
but you don't want to hear them trot out the same old
songs every time. If you are going to keep going you
want to hear the new material. Especially when it is
RF: I'm glad you said that. You have
to find a balance between the songs that people expect
to hear and the songs that you want to play. Our fans
have been very resilient about wanting to hear new material
and very accepting of it. I feel lucky because
we are not the kind of act that has to play 10 old hits
because that is all the people want to hear. Our fans
are always anxious for new material. We did a private
concert and got a standing ovation on a new song. It's
the first time I remember that happening.
SV: Which song was it?
RF: It was “Body Art.” I
really don't remember it every happening before.
SV: Do you think that maybe the assumption
that people are not receptive to new material is more of
a perception than a reality?
RF: In our case I would say yes. People
have been so loyal to this band. It astounds me. We owe
our existence to our loyal fans. They must want to hear
new material because we've had 17 or 18 studio albums and
they are still looking forward to the new stuff.
SV: The fact that you can still come up with
new material that sounds so fresh and vital is amazing
RF: Again it's a function of our relationship
with the fans and the relationships between the band members.
I do as best as I have always been able to do as a songwriter.
It's just a combination of all those factors. I have to
say we owe it to the fans mostly.
SV: Right now there is so much inconsistency
in everybody's lives. You just don't know what is going
to hit you and there is something very comforting about
little touchstones that have been a constant in your life.
Music is like that and when it's a band like the Rippingtons
one of the things that feels so good is that you have a
sound but you aren't stuck in the past and dragging us
backward with you. The sound keeps evolving and you
do give us new music to get excited about.
RF: I'll keep that in mind. I'll feel
more confident about putting more new songs in the set.
We have it and we love to play it.
SV: I'll be the little devil on your shoulder
that says “play more new stuff, then play even more
new stuff.” (laughs)
RF:Well we have it and we love to play it
SV: More than any of your recent releases you
have brought that trademark sound without making it sound
recycled. There are elements of texture and melody that
are Rippingtons/Russ Freeman themes but they are in a new
context and new songs.
RF: The way I look at it is maybe the
definition of a song has changed. The thing that I most
love about music is the thing I see less and less of, and
that's harmony and melody. Now I hear a lot of rhythm.
I don't mean to criticize modern music but it almost seems
quaint and old fashioned to have as much harmony and melody
as we do. It's almost dated (laughs)
SV: I guess if that's dated I'm with you because
what I like so much about the songs on the new CD is that
they are tight, catchy, and melodic when a lot of what
is out there is riffs that don't turn into songs.
RF: Right, or grooves. I hear a lot of
repeating rhythmic patterns with four or five note themes
and the themes don't develop. You just keep hearing it
over and over. So the artist is trying to get you to instantly
recognize the material. I try to stay away from that.
SV: You lived in Colorado for quite a while,
then came to Florida while most musicians and the music
business seem to be concentrated in New York and LA. Do
you think being this far away has helped you keep the originality
and freshness in what you do?
RF: I think that is a good point. I have
not been in those circles and I've kind of had a fresh
take on how I approach the music. Not to say that being
in those circles isn't a good thing. There's a lot of networking
and positive associations and I've probably missed some
good energy from not being in that. So there are pluses
SV: You had Rick Braun on this CD. He's an
LA guy and he brought something really beautiful to that
RF: Absolutely, it was great working with
him. It's no different than if I was in LA and knocked
on his door and said “Hey Rick, do it!” There's
not that much difference than physically being there because
we have the technology that allows us to communicate so
SV: When I talked to Jeff last month he said
he did his tracks at his studio in Seattle and that you
and he had been working together for so long that you could
give him a pretty raw track to work with and he could intuitively
come up with what would work for it. Then I heard the final
product and it did sound like the two of you were in the
RF: Again, here's what's really unique
about this record. Almost everybody would do many, many
takes. Much more than normal as the song developed. I did
this one completely opposite of how I've always done it.
Normally I put the guitar tracks last. What I usually do
is mock up the song structure with the melody and rhythm
and I'll send it to the players so they can start learning
it. But I leave it loose enough, generally, to where I
want their input so they are not just mimicking what I've
already played. From there we build a song. I like to do
things left field so this time I decided that what I would
submit to them was the finished guitar tracks. All the
guitar tracks were completely done first and they played
to them. I think it was way harder for everybody. They're
always saying they want to play to the guitar, that it's
the glue that holds everything together. They have been
saying that, and I have been telling them that the track
they are working with is not the final guitar track. I
gave them what they wanted this time. I said here's the
finished guitar. Play to it. It was harder for them but
look at the cohesiveness. It really seems to have made
a big difference.
SV: I think that's what I heard that does sound different
but you can't quite define it?
RF: It's funny because everybody wants
to play to something that is definitive and when you
are building an album nothing exists at first. It's just
thin air. You've gotta start somewhere so I thought that
since my tracks are rhythmically solid on guitar, and
it holds things together, I felt confident about playing
all the guitar tracks first.
SV: Had you guys worked on these
songs or done any kind of framework with
them as a group before you started recording?
RF: No, the songs didn't exist yet. I
had to teach them the songs. We're enough of a live band
that I want to let the songs develop a little bit, but
on this one I was pretty strict on the form. Sometimes
I'll send them out and say I don't really know what I'm
looking for but on this one I was pretty specific. All
the tracks were kind of already finished.
SV: It seems like the songs get more improvisational
and a little more edgy toward the end of the CD. Is that
strategic or just the way it came together?
RF: The last thing that ever happens is
the sequencing and I don't have much to do with that. I'll
submit my sequence and it is invariably changed by the
end. When the albums come out I don't even know the order
of the songs. I think one thing they try to do is space
the songs by who is featured so you don't get too heavy
with classical guitar vs sax. We're distributing the features
pretty evenly now. We're featuring Billy a lot. It's great
to give everybody a chance to play.
SV: I noticed that a lot and
another thing I noticed is that you used
a lot more guitar textures on this, and a
lot more textures in general. You've got
the sitar effect, some rock electric solos,
a lot of things going on with the acoustic.
RF: My wife is always telling me to play
more classical guitar. Then we took a poll on our website
and people wanted more electric guitar. I've always felt
like I'm more of a chameleon as a guitarist. I'm always
able to put whatever texture might be good for the song
rather than considering myself to be some kind of virtuoso
soloist. I try to play what is needed for the song at hand.
SV: You haven't used the trumpet much either.
RF: Marc Ledford played on “Black
Diamond.” It may have been that long ago.
SV: I love Eric Marienthal and Paul Taylor
but there is something about Jeff Kashiwa. It seems like
Jeff's presence – the way he plays- just meshes with
the songs you write and makes everything come together.
RF: I'll tell you about Jeff. The song
that I wrote with my wife called “I Still Believe” -
I gave it to Jeff and it is totally dependent on his performance.
You give a guy a song like that and you're placing all
your trust in him. It's maybe my favorite saxophone performance
of any Rippingtons song ever. As a songwriter, I was so
happy with the way we were able to realize that song and
I give that credit to Jeff.
SV: It really sneaks up on you and builds and
builds and really grips you.
RF: You can't ask for more as a songwriter.
SV: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting
partnership with your wife, Yaredt Leon, she's got a strong
sense of melody too.
RF: She's a super Spanish pop songwriter
and so hooked into melody. It's funny because they are
going through this same kind of transformation in that
market as we have here. They've gone into the reggaeton
phase and she loves the old salsa and the roots and now
they are kind of losing that. It's going through the same
kind of commercialization that the American market is going
SV: Over the last few years you've become a
visual artist too. You've got some of your paintings displayed
on your personal website.
RF:I thought long and hard about posting
my work. I felt like it had to be at a certain level so
you don't get tagged as some kind of a jack of all trades
master of none. At this point I did feel confident enough
to post it on my site, RussFreeman.com and I'm getting
some good reactions, actually.
SV: It's really fascinating because it is very detailed.
RF: I think that is one style, and that's
the style I'm working in now. Obviously as I try to develop
my skills as an artist I'll go through different phases,
as I have as a musician. It's something I feel strongly
enough about. It's part of the development of myself as
a human being, that I wanted to put it out there to the
SV: It's definitely at the level where I wouldn't
worry about that “master of none” thing.
RF: (laughs) It's a passion, you
know, it's something I love to do.
SV: It said on your site that you had been
into this when you were a kid. When did you start getting
back into it and developing it ?
RF: It came from my web development. That's
how I started getting back into it. That was a good seven
or eight years ago. It was from learning the tools of web
design, then getting into PhotoShop and illustrator and
Flash design. I guess I really started getting serious
about art about two or three years ago during some of my
travels. I was developing my photographic skills and it
just hit me. I don't know why. You get these urges to create
art. I don't know where it comes from. It's the same as
music. I don't know why I write music but I do it.
SV: It kind of sounds like a trite analogy
but I think of painting with color and painting with notes.
RF: What I've been trying to do recently
is make as many analogies to music as I can to further
myself as an artist. To try to take the skills I've acquired
as a musician and translate them into this other medium.
There are definitely analogies to be made.
SV: You've got to pin that down because it sounds so
interesting. The skills you've acquired as a musician
and use in this other field too. What would those be?
RF: A real basic example would be that
you have a musical scale. I would make that analogous
to blocking in forms and shapes, light and shadow. Very
basic building block structure. The syntax of music would
be the syntax of light and shadow. Maybe another would
be that you've got your major, minor, augmented type
keys and I would make that analogous to perspective.
So you have all these tools that you use. Musicians use
tools and so do artists.
SV: And musicians use shade, texture and color.
And so do artists.
RF: Absolutely. It's about acquiring the
tools. I just love studying art too. Seeing where it has
come from and how it has evolved. The whole thing is fascinating
SV: When you have these tracks and you go into
the studio to mix them that's what you are doing.
RF: You're mixing colors. You're deciding
the hue in music when you are deciding the tempo and some
of the instrumentation. When you were asking about using
a rock guitar or an accordion. That would be like hue shifts
in a color scheme or an under painting. There's a lot of
SV: Getting back to the music business, you
have a band and a record company. You've always been on
the frontlines as far as adapting to technology but how
do you look at putting an album out in 2009 and getting
it to the people who need to hear it?
RF: That's a tough question. I don't know
what the smartest business answer is. I guess the answer
would be that since we haven't been able to arrive at a
survivable place as an industry, at a place where we can
distribute the music we are now leaving it up to the goodwill
of the fans to find the music and purchase it.
SV: And to spread the word.
RF: That I again attribute to our fans.
Turning other people on to our music and being so devoted
and loyal. You can't put a price tag on that.
SV: Peak is one of the few surviving
record companies that focus on adult oriented
instrumental and vocal music. I know the
label is under the Concord umbrella and going
strong. What do you attribute that to?
RF: Again, I have to thank all the people
involved that we have been able to survive because not
many have and I attribute it to the success of the artists
on our roster and the fans for their support. It all emanates
from the fans. I don't think any artist should ever forget
SV: I think one place where you and the band
have kept that bond with the fans is that you have read
the fans and seen what we wanted by looking us in the eyes
rather than by going to somebody who does not look us in
the eyes but says “our research with those people
has said that they want this.” Instead of going
through that filter you have come straight to us.
RF: Everything we do is our relationship
with our fans when we play live. That's our basis. I've
never composed music by committee. I wouldn't be able to
do it. I mean take it or leave it. If you like our music
that's great. But it is going to be what it is. It can't
really be determined by a focus group.
SV: I was reading a book that was about how
easy it is to lose sight of who you are and what you need
to be doing and get caught up in a crowd mentality or just
get so busy you lose focus and the analogy they used was
losing and finding your North Star. It seemed like a good
analogy for what we call smooth jazz because the focus
has shifted so far away from what people originally came
to the music for. But I can pick up any Rippingtons
album and there might be some influences that came from
industry trends but you were never overtaken by them. Right
up to this album you've kept the North Star in sight and
we, as fans, really appreciate it.
RF: That's a good way to
end it (laughs)
SV: So we wish you the best and hope this one
does really well for you as you head for the 30th, 40th,
and 50th anniversary tours.