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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.”

This month, we honor:

The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman – Trailblazers Continuing to Cruise the C-Jazz Highways

Probably every single serious contemporary jazz fan knows of and probably has at least one album by The Rippingtons featuring iconic guitarist Russ Freeman. For those few who don’t, and for those who are new to the genre, allow me to enlighten you.

The Rippingtons, one of the most highly regarded and immensely popular c-jazz groups, were founded by guitarist Russ Freeman. They first hit the scene in the late ‘80s in California, playing a radio-friendly brand of contemporary jazz. The band’s first album, 1987’s Moonlighting (which Jazziz magazine has called “the number one most influential contemporary jazz album of all time.”), was a commercial success, buoyed by appearances from Kenny G and David Benoit. Over the course of the band’s first decade, they would go on to serve up six number one Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz albums including 1991’s Curves Ahead, 1997’s Black Diamond, and 2016’s True Stories— the album marking their 30th anniversary and the return of Brandon Fields on sax. Along the way, they also helped launch the careers of several smooth jazz stars including saxophonists Kenny G, Jeff Kashiwa, Dave Koz, and Eric Marienthal, all of whom were at one time or other, the saxophonist for the group.

The group, now well past 3 decades in the business, was first envisioned by Freeman as an all-star studio ensemble. Under Freeman’s production, the group has released 22 albums, all of which have attained top 5 Billboard status, with 5 of them reaching #1. This all comes as a surprise to even Freeman who hadn’t expect success beyond the first album!

The group’s influences are wide-ranging, from instrumental pop, to rock, to world music, to R&B. Some artists who’ve recorded with the Rippingtons include Arturo Sandoval, Jeffrey Osbourne, Kirk Whalum, Kenny G, Dave Grusin, the late Joe Sample, Dave Koz, David Benoit, Patti Austin, Peter White, Rick Braun, Zak Wylde, and many more. The Rippingtons were chosen Best Group 2000 by Billboard BET, and Best Group 2 years in a row, 2001 and 2002 by the Oasis Awards, in addition to Achievement in Video 2001.

A Nashville, TN, native, Freeman studied music at Cal Arts and UCLA before launching his solo career in 1985. Approached by the Japanese Alfa label, he brought along a handful of fellow West Coast rising stars including Benoit, Kenny G., Gregg Karukas, Fields, and others. Together, in addition to the debut album, they issued several Top Five Billboard jazz albums, including 1988’s Kilimanjaro and 1989’s Tourist in Paradise. All of these albums showcased the band’s hooky, groove-based pop-jazz.

In 1990, Freeman and the Rippingtons signed with GRP and released their fourth album, Welcome to the St. James Club. Their first album to feature saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa (who’d replaced the departing Fields), it landed at number one on the contemporary jazz charts. Curves Ahead followed, arrived the following year and included guest spots by Whalum, Grusin, saxophonist Nelson Rangell, and drummer Omar Hakim. The group fared equally well on their subsequent GRP efforts, with 1992’s Weekend in Monaco, 1994’s Sahara, and 1996’s Brave New World, the latter of which featured saxophonist Marienthal.

In the mid- ’90s, Freeman and his manager Andi Howard formed their own Peak label, which would be the main imprint for the Rippingtons (even as they moved from GRP to Windham Hill). In 1997, they celebrated the band’s tenth anniversary with the release of Black Diamond. Topaz followed two years later and reached number two on the chart. It also marked the departure of Kashiwa, who left the band to pursue his solo career.

In 2000, the Rippingtons issued their 11th studio album, Life in the Tropics, which found saxophonist Koz taking over for Kashiwa. For 2003’s Let It Ripp, the band worked with a horn section featuring Jerry Hey, Gary Grant, and Steven Hoffman. The Latin-flavored Wild Card followed in 2005, and included guest spots by Willy Chirino, Chante Moore, and Albita. The band returned in 2009 with Modern Art, which earned them their first Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album.

In 2011, the Rippingtons released the South of France-inspired Côte d’Azur, followed two years later by Built to Last, the latter hitting number one on the contemporary jazz albums chart. The band’s 20th studio album, Fountain of Youth, appeared in 2014. In 2016, the Rippingtons celebrated their 30th anniversary with the release of True Stories, which featured, as mentioned earlier, the return of original member, saxophonist Fields.

The group’s latest endeavor, Open Road, arrived in 2019 and definitely provides a spot-on wonderful narrative regarding the group’s vision going forward, as the road to musical possibilities is indeed open and will find many a receptive fan alongside that road, waving them through with encouragement to continue this spectacular, thrill-filled journey. — Ronald Jackson

To view the complete discography of The Rippingtons, click here.