September 29, 2006
Interviewed by Shannon West
The Rippingtons started out as a one-time studio
project that Russ Freeman put together with a bunch of up-and-coming
musicians who have since become some of the most influential
artists in contemporary jazz. That was 20 years and 15 albums
ago. They just released the 20th Anniversary CD, a collection
of new songs and one medley of old favorites featuring past and
present members of the band. The summer tour that brought back
fan favorites Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Reid just wrapped up. As
one of the fans who has been there from the beginning, getting
to talk to Russ was a thrill. It is so obvious from both what
he says and the way he says it that he loves making this music.
The comments he made about the songs and the process of creating
them sent me digging into my collection to hear older favorites
from a fresh perspective. I hope you’ll do the same as
you read this interview. The Rippingtons’ music is timeless.
For a lot of fans, including me, these songs are old friends.
SV: One thing I’ve noticed over the years
is that you talk about the audience and the fans a lot. Most
artists do care about their fans, but you and the other guys
in the band seem to comment on it more often.
RF: It’s the fans that make everything
possible. I have to give credit to our fans for a lot of reasons.
For one, they’ve kept us going this long. I think it’s
pretty unusual that a band would last 20 years. There are a
few out there that do but it is an unusual event! (laughs) The
thing about our fans is they have stuck with us for so long.
I was amazed at how many fans came up to us on this tour and
said they had been with us since the beginning, and even before
the beginning with my solo album. And that’s fantastic!
I would have never considered that possible, that fans
would be that devoted. It’s because of them that we are
SV: When you started planning the 20th anniversary
project, how did you decide to do new music instead of a retrospective
or some type of greatest hits project?
RF: That was a big debate and right
off the bat I knew I wasn’t interested in doing a retrospective.
That would be too narcissistic in a way, and I also think the
band has too much vitality to look backwards like that. The
thing that intrigued me about this particular project was calling
the players from the past and having them revisit some of the
songs they had played. I thought that was an interesting thing.
And also to play brand new material, to see how the players
have evolved, how they’ve matured and how they would
approach the music differently. Those were the things I was
interested in, not how they would play our old songs.
SV: Traditional thought would be that that would
be the most commercially viable way to do it, although it wouldn’t
have been the most fan-friendly way to do it in the case of
the Rippingtons and your fans.
RF: That was the debate on the medley. Originally I was shying
away from even wanting to do a medley but Andi (Howard – his
manager and business partner at Peak Records) talked me into
it. I’m glad she did in a way. The only way I was interested
in doing it was having the same players revisit the songs they
had done before because I thought it would be interesting to
see how their approach would have changed. Also it was great
to get back with the same players in the studio. All the musicians
are so fantastic. It’s funny, getting together with some
of these guys that I hadn’t seen in 10 or 15 years it was
as though we had never left the room. You have this chemistry
that never goes away.
SV: How hard was it to get everyone together? You have some people
on here that go back to 1986.
RF: Everyone said yes, pretty much right off the bat. I didn’t
even know that some of them would be interested in it, but some of the musicians
were intrigued with revisiting some of the songs as much as we were.
SV: Did you ever think when you started this thing that it was
going to last 20 years?
RF: If you know me at allyou know that every
year I think it’s the last year. I’ve been that way since the beginning
and I’ve always treated every album like it’s the last one. Part
of it is because I couldn’t believe that we’d make records for
20 years. Every album is an opportunity. You never know if you’ll get
another one. I’ve always cherished the challenge and opportunity to make
SV: Is that one reason why Rippingtons albums have never sounded
just like the previous ones or fallen into that trap of having a bunch of songs
that sound just alike on one CD?
RF: I have actively tried to make records differently,
to approach songwriting differently, to work in different ways and interact
with musicians in different ways and to just try different things as a producer.
Sometimes it’s been criticized. Some people might say we’ve had
too much Latin influence or too much of this or too much of that but I feel
like you have to take risks as a songwriter and as a band. You can’t
keep doing the same thing over and over. I think it’s that way for fans
and the musicians. The players in this band are charged up about playing because
it’s a challenge to them. I love that and as a songwriter I feel like
I have to throw things out to these guys that will challenge them and make
us all think of music in different ways.
SV: There were Latin influenced songs on the early albums; it’s
something you’ve expanded on over the years.
RF: Sure. And I think it really matured in the early
90s when we started going to the Caribbean countries. That was a wake up call
for me. It was a huge change in my musical life to have traveled to these countries
and played some of these festivals and seen the crowds and actually gotten
to know the Latin culture. It’s also been great to have guys in the band
who are authentic Latin musicians that can say “here’s the way
it’s really supposed to go.” It’s been a learning experience
and it’s something I really love because of the vitality of the music.
It’s kind of in our blood; it’s an authentic thing that we have.
SV: And I remember reading some comments in the fan forums where
people were criticizing the southwestern influences on Topaz as being “new-agey,” There
were songs that didn’t sound like anything you’d done before, but
I didn’t think that was descriptive of it at all.
RF: I didn’t think of it as new-agey. Around the time
we did Topaz I started to deconstruct the previous
ways I thought of music and things started to change for me around that time.
I wanted to throw out all the preconceptions of what we were supposed to be
doing. I think that after that time the albums became freer and maybe as a
result of that, successful. Life In The Tropics was
a huge success and a total departure for us. Also, it was the first time we
went totally digital. The whole way we recorded music changed forever. It’s
funny, looking back on it, it was a big event. People wouldn’t think
about how we record the records but it has a great deal to do with how they
sound. And it changed the way the musicians physically made the records. It
changed the way we worked.
SV: How did it change? And how have you managed to keep the live
sound and the warmth. Rippingtons CDs sound like you are using technology to
bring out the best in the music and performances while a lot of instrumental
music has started to sound like the technology is the star and the players
RF: We’ve always had this unique relationship to technology.
I think the Rippingtons were one of the very few early bands to embrace technology
in many ways: on the internet, with sequencing, with recording, with getting
into digital recording. At the same time, though, I realized there was some
kind of a backlash against some of this technology. In the early 90s I really
wanted to get away from things that I thought would become dated. Then in the
late 90s I realized we were going to have to make that switch to complete digital
recording. It’s funny because you can make things sound too perfect.
You can perfect a musician’s performance digitally and in the process
suck the life out of it and quantize things to the point where they are just
computers. That changed the way I thought about music too. I thought, what’s
the point? You could have a computer generate all your music for you.
I got much more into wanting to hear real performances from real players. It’s
funny because we had the ability to be perfect technically and I went the other
way creatively. You have to play it from top to bottom. I want to hear a real
SV: Moonlighting doesn’t
sound like a 20 year old album. There are a lot of CDs that came out in the
late 80s that have these signature sounds from the way they used the new technologies
that pin them to that era, but that one doesn’t.
RF: It was performance. We didn’t use a lot of
studio enhancements. For one thing we didn’t know how. It was the second
record I ever produced. All I knew was how to get musicians in there to play
the songs that I had written. One of my favorite memories of those sessions
is when we had played at the Baked Potato the night before and Brandon (Fields)
and I had a really early session the next day. We were really exhausted. We’d
stayed up ‘til something like 3 in the morning playing really hard and
I had Brandon coming in to play on “Calypso Café.” It
was like we hadn’t gone home. We were still burning! It was top to bottom
first take. It was so great!
SV: All those guys were standing on the verge of having their solo
careers take off. That was an amazing collection
of musicians to gather on this one album before they were big names.
RF: The other thing that really impressed me
on the tour this summer and really hit me with having Jeff and Steve in the
band is how much our fans want this to be a rock band. This is a rock band.
SV: The guy that was sitting next to me said that. He said the
thing he loved about you guys was that you rocked. That
thread of this music has been neutralized over the last 10 years. You guys
are one of the few bands that still have a rock influence. There’s
this school of thought that as you get older you want to hear mellower music
but that came from a previous generation. People in their 50’s now grew
up with Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and the Allman Brothers and have not outgrown
RF: I think that’s true. It didn’t
hit me until I saw the crowd reactions on this tour. I realized I should have
been saying this for the last 20 years. This is a rock band. (Laughs) It’s
a rock band that has every kind of influence in it, but at the core it’s
a rock band.
SV: That was one of the big thrills with the new CD. You’ve
got some rock guitar solos upfront, starting with the first track. A lot
of the songs on the new CD have the vibe and texture of some of the really
early albums. There’s just this very spirited, very energetic and I’d
say joyous sound.
RF: I have to say that this is the sum of the
musicians playing on it. After having made countless records and songs, it’s
the magic of the people making the songs. It’s Tony Morales, it’s
Gregg Karukas, it’s Brandon Fields. It’s the people that are making
the music. Every song has its own thing that you can’t predict or manipulate.
You never know how it’s going to work live or how a track is going to
come out. My favorite tracks are the ones that come out close to the way I
heard them in my head. Some musicians just give you that. Like Brandon. I always
have an idea of how he’s going to play and he’s always so close.
It’s exciting for me as a songwriter to have those things realized that
SV: You were working with all these brilliant musicians. Jerry
Hey, Patti Austin, Kirk Whalum, David Benoit, Jeff, and, of course, the current
band. It had to be amazing to record them all.
RF: One of the most thrilling parts of it was Jimmy Johnson
playing with Tony in the studio. Jimmy is a guy whose name doesn’t come
up very often and I consider him one of the most gifted players who has ever
held a bass. Everything he plays is just the right thing. What a fantastic
musician he is.
SV: I think people probably don’t know that much about him
because he hasn’t toured with the band recently so the people who got
into the band when Moonlighting and Kilimanjaro came
out know him. Tony is another guy that it was a thrill to hear from again.
He was in that incarnation of the band that was touring when a lot of fans
came on board. Tony was really one of the internet
pioneers, he started working in Silicon Valley really early in the game and
your band was one of the first ones to put up a website and go interactive. How
did that happen?
RF: What a lucky thing that
was to get Tony. We had the friends who helped guide
us. Tony was a huge factor; his help in getting us into that world was instrumental
and also my interest in technology. I realized early on that it was going to
be a great communication tool with the fans and it has.
SV: When you keep a band alive for this long there
are going to be personnel changes. You have always found
perfect people to bring in when other people have shifted.
RF: The musicians that come in the band
are referred by friends of players in the band so there is
already a rapport. I’ve always felt that it’s a great opportunity
for players that become more high profile and go off on their
careers and I’m happy for them. I’m happy to get
the new influences from new players. I can learn things from
them. I learn more than you could imagine from the new players
and the way they approach music. It’s always a great
experience to make these changes. I’ve never been threatened
by it. Then of course you have guys like Kim Stone who have
been fixtures for so many years. He’s become an integral
part of the band’s sound. And the guys that have come
on board are such great musicians like Dave Karasony and I
can’t say enough about Billy Heller, the guy is sitting
in the back and doing all the work.
SV: What was it like to have Steve and Jeff back
on the road this summer?
RF: It was better than you can imagine.
Not just because we are friends and we love playing together
but I was really tickled to see how the fans loved these two
guys. They are just really loved by the fans.
SV: When you did Drive did you go for a different sound than what
you were doing with the band?
RF: Kind of, yes. I really wanted to focus on guitars. It
was almost as though I woke up as an instrumentalist and I wanted to just use
some of the millions of textures that I can use. My approach as a guitarist has
always been to ask what does this track need now that I have everything else.
I’m just a utility guitarist. I’m a guy that can play what it needs
to have on the track and that’s my contribution. So it was an opportunity
to totally get into the guitar texture.
SV: Over the years there have been changes in the
sound that was expected from contemporary instrumental music,
what we now call Smooth Jazz. A lot of the things that
people love about the Rippingtons like rock oriented songs,
electric guitar solos, wailing sax and percussion jams got
phased out and artists eliminated those elements. You never
did. How have you stayed true to your sound when the
industry pressure has been to go in another direction?
RF: We have to really have some level of continuity
because I have these great musicians. I can’t just subtract
it into a homogenous sound that isn’t really true to
the players playing it. This is what it is. It’s six
guys who are experts on their instruments playing the best
music I know how to write and bringing everything they have
to these songs. That’s all it really can be. Otherwise
it wouldn’t be the band.
SV: By staying true to the music you’ve stayed
true to the fans too.
RF: Probably the best answer is that the fans
have really guided us through. In the creation of music people
are always asking where it comes from. I don’t know the
answer. I try to work at it. I try to write the songs. I’m
not good at staying with the fads.
SV: That’s why you’re celebrating 20
years and so many others have come and gone. So what’s
RF: People ask me what I’m going to
do for the next 20 years and the answer is I have no idea.
It’s a blank slate. I don’t try to preconceive
the direction the band will take or what I will do as a songwriter.
I haven’t even thought about it. The thing I don’t
want to do is keep writing the same thing over and over. I
want to do something different. Who knows what that will be.
SV: Thank you so much for the conversation. I know
a lot of us will still be trying to get front row seats in 2026
when you do your 40th anniversary tour.
RF: I would like to again thank our fans for
having given us the opportunity to have 20 years. To have the
had and the opportunities we’ve had. Without them none of
this music would exist. My career wouldn’t exist.