THE RIPPINGTONS FEATURING RUSS FREEMAN TRUE STORIES PEAK RECORDS/ENTERTAINMENT ONE
“When I started the Rippingtons, I never imagined it would last more than the release of one album, let alone thirty years!” recalls Russ Freeman, leader and founder of the pioneering, GRAMMY® nominated group The Rippingtons, who are celebrating their 30th anniversary year with the release of True Stories, the band’s 22nd recording to be released June 24, 2016.
True Stories, recorded over an intensive three-month span, is a refreshing elixir that will delight devout fans of The Rippingtons and attract new ones. Joined by original Rippington, alto and soprano saxophonist Brandon Fields, drummer Dave Karasony, bassist and rhodes player Rico Belled and special guest Jeffrey Osborne, Freeman orchestrates ten compelling originals. The album opens with the hypnotic and scintillating “Wild Tales,” the CD’s first single, which Freeman calls an “experiment in randomness.” Fusing elements of jazz with traces of EDM and world influences, The Rippingtons foreshadow the journey ahead and promise it to be nothing short of exhilarating. Many of the classic Rippingtons hit repertoire prominently feature rich saxophone melodies and this time out Freeman showcases his unparalleled guitar wizardry.
On True Stories his choice of axe is a Patrick Cummings gold custom Brian Moore 30th Anniversary Russ Freeman model guitar. He plays it on all the album tracks with the exception of “Wonderland,” which features a Rosewood Fender Telecaster. The epic number transports listeners through several breathtaking, suspenseful movements that are crystallized by Freeman’s beautiful and intuitive playing. He cites this song as his favorite on the CD and you can hear the love he pours into each unforgettable moment. Amazingly, the song was recorded in one take. “I’m a big believer in first takes and stream of consciousness,” explains Freeman. “There’s something in the DNA of a first take that I find fascinating. The raw ideas are always hidden in there.” The swooning and uplifting “Sundance,” follows featuring the lyrical saxophone Brandon Fields and blues-filled and rockin’ and guitar lines of Freeman. “Sundance reminds me of the hard work of songwriting. Sometimes you have to make yourself grind it out and you get lucky. This song is perfect for the live band,” shares Freeman who will be taking True Stories on the road this Summer.
An avid traveler and lover of culture, Freeman takes us on a journey to Spain as he pays homage to the Spanish tradition of Andalusia, the southern region where Islamic and indigenous music flourish. The majestic and arresting “Flamenco Beach,” is a composition that Freeman says played in his head until he finally sat down to write it. The ebullient rocking and rhythmically charged “King’s Road,” features Freeman with Fields’ alto and Belled’s warm bass sharing the melody in unison, while drummer Dave Karasony solos over the thematic changes. Freeman shares, “This is the first time the Ripps have featured an extended drum solo on an album. I felt the time had come. I was surprised at the approach Dave took, using a combination of hi-hat finesses and double bass drum mayhem.” Another highpoint on True Stories comes in the form of the devotional “My Promise,” an enchanting song, featuring GRAMMY-winning singer Jeffrey Osborne. Freeman co-wrote the gem with his talented wife Yaredt, who has contributed several songs to The Rippingtons songbook. Reuniting Jeffrey with the band came as a recommendation from Freeman’s long time manager Andi Howard, conjuring up some of the magic they created with their unforgettable collaboration on the Thom Bell/Paul Hurtt classic “I’ll Be Around,” which was a hit for the Spinners as well as Freeman when it appeared on his 1994 album Sahara. Freeman composed the funk-drenched composition “Reach Higher,” at the piano and highlights his buttery synths and gritty guitar licks alongside Belled’s driving bass lines, Fields’ soulful sax melodies and the high-octane drumming of Karasony. Freeman confides, “I’m a guitar player by trade, but I spend most of my time playing keyboards!”
“Dreamcatcher” is ethereal and wistful and “Golden Child,” is a blues fueled number with stop-time rhythms that will have you dancing before you know it. In typical fashion, The Rippington’s leave us with something to remember with the album’s unforgettable title track. It is a divine, dramatic, impressionistic and contemplative track that highlights Brandon Fields’ sublime soprano and a wonderful piano solo from Freeman. “I’m so pleased to have Brandon back with The Ripps,” says the guitarist. “Our collaboration precedes the band going back to my first solo album. Our communication is effortless and I am amazed at how he is able to always interpret my melody writing.”
Devoted fans of the The Rippingtons are well acquainted with the band’s beloved, spunky and funky mascot, the jazz cat, who has graced all 22 album covers. “I love the outlandish graphics which were intentionally calibrated. I was specific about wanting octopus tentacles for the jazz cat and gave designer Bill Mayer the backdrop of 40s era comic books, preferably set to the landscape of Mars, “laughs Freeman. Now who said jazz has no sense of humor?!
“Musical inspiration is a triage of sonics, melody, and visual reference,” states Russ Freeman. His approach to composition is similar to that of a mixed-medium painter, in which he engages all the senses and employs disparate techniques. Hurling unique instrumentation, wide-ranging dynamics and contrasting textures upon his auditory canvas, he pushes the boundaries sonically, harmonically, rhythmically and emotionally. Freeman, who got his big break early on as a composer, understands how important the right elements are to create the perfect musical climate. In fact, Freeman and the Rippingtons have been known to work with The American Association of Music Therapy to conduct clinics in therapeutic settings, using their music as a therapeutic tool.
The Nashville born, LA based guitarist began studying classical guitar at age eleven and picked up the guitar four years later. Such iconic players as Larry Carlton, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Paco de Lucia and James Taylor, among others, have influenced Freeman’s own distinctive style through the years. “I have always attributed the band’s success to our loyal fans,” says the humble maverick. A testament to Freeman’s Midas touch and the reverence his peers have for him is the who list of stars who have been featured with The Rippingtons through the years. Some of those artists include vocalists Patti Austin, Jeffrey Osborne and The Whispers, pianists Bob James, Joe Sample and David Benoit and saxophonists Kenny G, Jeff Kashiwa, Paul Taylor and Kirk Whalum, to name a few. Freeman’s dynamic and adventurous compositions have long been a centerpiece of The Rippingtons’ signature sound. “Once I learned to free myself from self imposed constraints, I found new ways to express ideas musically,” explains Freeman. The Rippingtons’ irresistible auditory confection has catapulted their albums to the top of the charts time and time again. In fact, virtually all of their recordings have hit Top 5 on the Contemporary jazz charts and several have landed #1 albums including Welcome To the St. James Club, Curves Ahead, Tourist in Paradise, Sahara and Black Diamond. “I try to always respect the limited time we have, and treat each day as the last,” shares the visionary and virtuosic guitarist, keyboardist, composer and producer. This mindset, spiritual grounding and deep understanding of how to operate in gratitude, has allowed the multi-instrumentalist to explore the realms of possibility, making him a pioneer in the music game. Russ Freeman has made a name for himself defying the odds and redefining himself every step of the way and he’s not done yet.
True Stories is a testament to the unwavering artistry of Russ Freeman and The Rippingtons and confirmation that there are still many more tales to be told. “I’m trying to reach for a place I have not been. I’m looking for inspiration. I never look back. ”It is this forward momentum that propels the notes on True Stories and keeps the listeners yearning for the next chapter.
As Spyro Gyra looks forward to 2018 and beyond, they show no sign of slowing down. Over the last 40+ years, they have performed over five thousand shows, released thirty-one albums (not counting “Best Of…” compilations) selling over ten million albums while also achieving one platinum and two gold albums. Although few acts have accomplished this type of record, they have done it by constantly challenging themselves as is evidenced by their last studio release “The Rhinebeck Sessions” which was written and recorded over three days in the studio.
Born in Brooklyn, bandleader Jay Beckenstein grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and started playing the saxophone at age seven. Beckenstein attended the University at Buffalo, starting out as a biology major before changing to music performance (read classical and avant garde). During summer breaks, he and an old high school friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, played gigs together back on Long Island. Wall attended college in California, and after both graduated, Beckenstein stayed in Buffalo’s thriving music scene, where Wall eventually joined him.
“Not many people know it, but Buffalo was like a mini Chicago back then, with a smoking blues, soul, jazz, even rockabilly scene, of all things,” Beckenstein muses. “After being confined to classical music for so long, it was heaven. I was in the horn sections around town, backing some great vocalists.”
Spyro Gyra, whose odd name has since become world famous, was first known simply as “Tuesday Night Jazz Jams,” a forum wherein Beckenstein and Wall were joined by a rotating cast of characters. Tuesday just happened to be the night when most musicians weren’t playing other gigs to pay their bills. Around this time, a young keyboardist named Tom Schuman began sitting in when he was only sixteen years old. This young man, of course, remains a member to this day.
“Don’t forget the interminable Dead-like solos we were taking,” Beckenstein cracks. “We were the kings of self-indulgence, but eventually we earned our right to charge a quarter at the door. It was a complete shock when word of our psychosis got out and we started packing them in!”
The group’s increasing popularity – combined with the purchase of a new sign for the club – prompted the owner to insist that Beckenstein come up with a name for his band. “It began as a joke. I said ‘spirogyra,’ he misspelled it, and here we are thirty years later. In retrospect, it’s okay. In a way, it sounds like what we do. It sounds like motion and energy.”
In their earliest days, Spyro Gyra took their cues from Weather Report and Return to Forever – bands whose creative flights were fueled by a willingness to do things that had never been done before. “I believed that we were springing from what Weather Report did,” says Beckenstein. “I never thought in commercial terms. I just thought they were the next step in the evolution of jazz, and that we would be part of it.”
The first few years saw the group’s identity split into a dynamic live act and a producer centric recording process, borne out of the rotating cast of characters in the jazz jam beginnings. These albums were the product of the band and a great number of the top session players in New York. In 1983, Beckenstein made the decision to make the albums the work of the band members he shared the stage with night after night, only supplementing with occasional guests.
There were several personnel changes in the 1980’s, which slowed down about twenty years ago. Julio Fernandez became the group’s guitarist in 1984 and, except for a short hiatus at the end of that decade, has continued in that position. Scott Ambush became the band’s bass player in 1991 making this the beginning of his third decade in the band. Bonny Bonaparte joined the band in 2006 making him the “new guy” at five years.
“When we first started,” Beckenstein recalls, “a lot of the jazz purists got on our case about calling what we did jazz and now it’s funny to hear us getting respect from the same people. Like, wow, what you guys did was so much more intriguing than some of the stuff they hear today… Art manifests itself in a multitude of styles and contexts. Isn’t that why we started to play in the first place?”
In 1977, they foreshadowed the DIY movement of the punks of the 1970’s by self-releasing their eponymous debut album. Spyro Gyra was picked up by Amherst Records, a local label who then made a deal for subsequent albums to go to Infinity Records, a label owned by MCA Records. After gaining Infinity its only gold (soon to be platinum) record with Morning Dance, Infinity folded and the group was picked up by MCA Records. There they stayed until MCA acquired noted contemporary jazz label GRP Records. Spyro Gyra moved to GRP in 1990 and put out all but one of their 1990’s output on that label. In 1999, they released a single album, Got The Magic on Windham Hill Jazz. The “aughts” had them returning to an indie mode, licensing their albums to Heads Up International. Most of those Heads Up albums have since returned to the band as self released independent releases. 2011 sees them returning to Amherst Records in Buffalo with A Foreign Affair.
“My hope is that our music has the same effect on the audience that it does on me,” says Beckenstein. “I’ve always felt that music, and particularly instrumental music, has this non-literal quality that lets people travel to a place where there are no words. Whether it’s touching their emotions or connecting them to something that reminds them of something much bigger than themselves, there’s this beauty in music that’s not connected to sentences. It’s very transportive. I would hope that when people hear our music or come to see us, they’re able to share that with us. That’s the truly glorious part of being a musician.”