I try to be fair to smooth jazz. I've actually grown fond of its unfailing competence, its lack of pretension and the genuine and unhyped loyalty that exists between fans and musicians. I admire its determined indifference to critical hostility and even its comfortable, suburban lack of interest in being hip. In addition, its unselfconscious appeal across the black-and-white audience divide is one of the unstudied phenomena of recent musical cultures. They do sorely test you, though, these smooth jazzers.
I ask you, "Let It Ripp"! Is there a worse album title doing the rounds? And Russ Freeman may like golf, as indeed will many, if not the majority of Rippington fans. But do we need a golfing cover, compounded by a picture of Russ with his favourite driver on the back. And there's worse -- the CD is done out like a golf ball. If smooth jazz wanted to proclaim its junior executive squaredom to the world it could do it no more prominently or defiantly.
In addition, the album, by the way, is the millionth that the Rippingtons (or acts that sound like the Rippingtons) have made and unsurprisingly sounds much like the previous 999,999. That is to say that it features forgettable but oddly familiar melodies, a saxophone player who sounds a little like Wilton Felder, some Spanish touches, a vague attempt at a funkier number and a series of anodyne pop/soul instrumentals, impeccably played, but with as much individuality as a junior corporate executive at a mass rally of junior corporate executives.
And yet. And yet. On its own terms and doing what it so over-determinedly intends to do, it is quite good. Really. It is undoubtedly, avowedly, easy-listening fodder, music to assuage the troubles of the working day in the course of the journey home to the suburbs, or to dispel the boredom of that same Suburbia, with the aid of a fine wine and an expensive hi-fi set. Chill out, lounge, ambient, new age are all acceptable fare for the trendier folk. Smooth jazz is simply the same thing for the more mature, less club-oriented sections of the populace. And, I confess, I like much of it, in the way I like many of its precursors. For it has pedigree. The lineage stretches back to the late fifties' and Suburbia's original incarnation. Popular music, well arranged and with a soupcon of jazz was the staple fare of the first mass LP market. The Rippingtons, Joyce Cooling, and Peter White may not be quite in the same easy listening league as Nancy Wilson, Billy May, or George Shearing but they occupy a similar place in the contemporary scene and serve much the same function as those legendary figures.
Anyhow, Russ Freeman, who plays guitar and keyboards with style and accomplishment, produces, composes and is the mastermind behind the incredibly successful Rippingtons. His key co-worker is, a relatively recent recruit, saxophonist Eric Marienthal, but the rest of the band are all note-perfect professionals. Drop in anywhere and you'll find the evidence.
"Mr. B" shows the Freeman-Marienthal combination at its tightest. A mellow, moderately funky groove, with nice horn arrangements, it boasts a strong keyboard solo (not Freeman but Bill Heller, I think) and that interplay between sax and guitar that is flawless if not exactly fresh. "Lucky Charm" is a Southern California or Nevada highway cruise, flowing , sub-Crusaders fare -- clean and impeccably groomed. And so on. No surprises, but no mistakes and no disappointments. A little softer and you have "A Private Getaway" with its Mexican guitar. More acoustic soothe-and-groovery comes in the form of "Cast A Spell", beautifully played and infuriatingly cosy. Up the tempo a little and there are the likes of "Stingray" and "Let It Ripp" which are a little more horn-led, robust but hardly aggressive.
Gentle, effortless, and easy on the ear -- insults and compliments in the same adjectives. That, for ill or good is smooth jazz. The Rippingtons are masters of the art. I don't expect to convert anyone but, if you are tempted, then this is the unadulterated Real Thing, no sneaky soul vocals or straight jazz track to muddy the issue. It is indeed tailor-made for driving from work to the golf course in this year's SUV. It is, after all, another Rippingtons album and it makes perfect sense in its own, well-appointed terms. And, if you hadn't already guessed, it makes perfect sense to this non-golfing, non-car driving reviewer.