To say the first annual Elk Creek Jazz Festival features the smooth grooves and tropical fusion music of The Rippingtons as the headline act is certainly correct. Though a regular visitor to Lexington for a time, the ensemble has largely been absent from the area for much of the past decade.
But as most any fan of the band will tell you, its official title is The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman, a nod to the guitarist, principal composer, leader and mainstay member who brought The Rippingtons to life over 22 years ago. But to have the event promoted as the Elk Creek Jazz Festival featuring The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman? Nope. Just two many “features” in there, folks. But rest assured, Rippingtons fans, Freeman will still be at the helm when the band hits Owenton on Saturday.
Owenton? Hmm. The home of Elk Creek Vineyards, which requires roughly a half-hour drive on I-75 North through some pretty significant interstate construction (although don’t expect that to tie up traffic much on Saturday afternoon), seems far removed from some of the locales Freeman references in his predominantly instrumental compositions. Among his titles: Villa by the Sea (actually a track from a 2002 Freeman solo album called Drive), Life in the Tropics, Aspen, South Beach Mambo, Seven Nights in Rome, Morocco and One Summer Night in Brazil.
Perhaps the epitome of the exotic escapism behind Freeman’s music is Weekend in Monaco, a breezy 1992 album whose cover art depicts a Cheshire cat complete with hip beret (the cartoon mascot can be found on all Rippingtons albums) behind the wheel of a yellow sportster as its navigates ocean-side curves enroute to some posh getaway.
OK, so it’s not the same as a weekend getaway to Owenton. But Freeman and Elk Creek are going to be doing their best to bring a little of that lavish spirit to Kentucky on Saturday, along with performances by Cincinnati’s Randy Villars Band, the University of Kentucky Faculty Jazz Quartet and Alma y Clave. The music begins at 4 p.m. The Rippingtons are scheduled to play at 8.
In a field of more organically designed smooth jazz bands, The Rippingtons share a close stylistic kinship with Spyro Gyra. Both groups share a preference for sunny, tropical rhythms that emphasize saxophone and percussion, although Freeman’s guitarwork obviously serves as a lead voice for The Rippingtons.
Both design music rich in melodic appeal drawn as much from pop as jazz. That explains why the title tune to The Rippingtons’ 1996 album Brave New World is featured on Smooth Jazz II, a sampler record released earlier this month. The link between the album’s soft-focus tunes is the fact they have all been used as background music for forecasts on the Weather Channel.
“Yes, and the chance of precipitation in Monaco tonight will be…”
Most of all, though, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra have shared bass players. When the latter band was a frequent performer at the old Breeding’s on New Circle Road in the early ‘80s, bassist Kim Stone proved an engaging and energized foil for saxophonist/leader Jay Beckenstein. Similarly, Stone’s Bob Goes to the Store, a jam inspired by the bassist’s dog, was a highlight of those shows.
But for over 18 years, Stone has been rolling with The Rippingtons, where his finger-popping bass work has been regularly featured on the set-closing High Roller (from Weekend in Monaco).
These days, Freeman is something of his own boss. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the band itself, whose personnel has regularly revolved under the guitarist’s stewardship. But Freeman also co-founded Peak Records in 1994, which today oversees all Rippingtons albums and Freeman-related recordings as well new music by as a roster of pop/jazz/R&B notables that includes Lee Ritenour, David Benoit and Regina Belle.
The most recent Peak project for The Rippingtons is 2006’s 20th Anniversary. Despite a celebratory title that suggests a retrospective, the album is actually full of new recordings that feature numerous band alumni (including drummer Tony Morales) and a few guest vocalists (including R&B crooner Jeffrey Osborne, who concludes a finale medley with an update of The Spinners’ I’ll Be Around). Freeman dedicated the album to the late vocalist Carl Anderson, the voice that ignited The Rippingtons’ hit 1989 album Tourist in Paradise (where the trademark Cheshire is surfing on the cover).
Little of the 20th Anniversary material figures into the band’s current concerts, though. Many recent performances still revolve around crowd favorites, including the title tracks to the Tourist in Paradise, Welcome to the St. James Club (1990) and Black Diamond (1997) albums as well as High Roller and an occasional Freeman take on Jimi Hendrix material.
So what, then, if a weekend in Owenton doesn’t have the same vacation poster appeal as Weekend in Monaco? With Freeman and company back in the region on Saturday, Elk Creek is bound to become a Kentucky getaway with its own jet-setting charm. They could even design a new album cover for the occasion with the Cheshire in a basketball uniform. Works for me
The Elk Creek Jazz Festival featuring The Rippingtons begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at Elk Creek Vineyards, 150 Hwy 330 in Owenton. Tickets are $20-$200. Gates open at 3 p.m. Call (502) 484-0005. For more information, visit www.elkcreekvineyards.com