Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
Artist: THE RIPPINGTONS
I recently sat with my 5-year-old niece at a restaurant when she said to me, “This place is weird…the music is weird.” I explained to her that it was “jazz,” which is very different from the music she’s used to hearing, but I really like it and maybe one day she will too. I was pleasantly surprised by her reaction, which was a smile and a simple “hmm,” which I interpreted as “Perhaps you’re right, Uncle Rich. I’ll remember that when I’m older.” I might be projecting here but, as someone who grew up on mainstream pop & rock, my journey to becoming a jazz fan occurred over many years and through various subgenres. My earliest forays into instrumental music were songs that crossed over to pop radio like Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth Of Beethoven” and a handful of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass songs, as well as various themes from the Rocky soundtrack and Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy scores for Peanuts TV specials. During my high school years I got heavily into jazz/rock fusion via The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever and The Tony Williams Lifetime, all of which combined electric instrumentation and rock & roll energy with the virtuosity & improvisation associated with jazz, but I wasn’t quite ready for traditional acoustic jazz. Ironically, my gateway arrived via the instrumental music that’s most reviled by jazz purists: smooth (or contemporary) jazz. During college I needed music to accompany many hours of studying & writing papers, something that could play in the background but still had some substance, and artists like Spyro Gyra, The Yellowjackets & David Sanborn fit the bill.
By the mid-‘80s, contemporary jazz was becoming a radio format known as “Quiet Storm,” with more & more artists popping up and ascending the Jazz charts. None had more of an immediate & lasting impact than The Rippingtons, a collective of talented musicians spearheaded by songwriter/guitarist/synth player Russ Freeman. Their combination of technical abilities, catchy melodies, some ‘80s production flourishes and exotic “World Music” elements made them the ideal soundtrack for my studies, in addition to providing endless music for The Weather Channel’s every-ten-minute local weather updates. Their 1986 debut album, Moonlighting (coinciding with the short-lived but beloved TV series of the same name), also introduced me to an artist who would soon become a longtime favorite, pianist/composer David Benoit. Benoit contributed his talents to 4 of the album’s 8 songs, while saxophonists Brandon Fields and Kenny G (yep, the pariah of the jazz community and soon-to-be mega-platinum artist added some really nice soprano sax on 2 tracks) were two other notable contributors. I’m not sure I even consider this “jazz” since everything is arranged with no obvious improvisation, so I simply think of it as good, melodic instrumental music with stellar musicianship. While my tastes have shifted over the years and I don’t often play The Rippingtons or many other smooth jazz artists anymore, albums like Moonlighting still resonate with me whenever I play them, bringing me back to my college days. Whether it’s the syncopated funkiness of “Moonlighting” and “Open All Night,” the subtly propulsive “She Likes To Watch” and “Calypso Café” (both of which would have made excellent theme songs for ‘80s TV shows), the acoustic guitar & piano showcase “Angela” or the lovely album-closing ballad “Intimate Strangers,” there’s a lot to like here for open-minded music lovers. Some of the synth sounds date-stamp the album but it holds up extremely well for a 30-year-old record.
I did not expect to read about this! Although, from the late ’80s to mid-’90s, anything on GRP was a guaranteed sale, at both retail and wholesale. (And I don’t miss it at all.)
Ward, I’m happy to exceed (or is that undermine?) your expectations with this post. Haha. I was a big GRP fan. Loved a lot of that music and many of those CDs were sonically ideal for the then-new CD format. I even worked at GRP for a little over a year (’94-’95), by which point my tastes in instrumental music had moved to more traditional jazz. A lot of that had to do with GRP’s affiliation with the Impulse and Chess labels, so I was exposed to a lot of classics.
Oh great, so now I’m bagging on your career.
How could I forget GRP’s work with Impulse? Their Coltrane reissues taught me a lot, and we moved a ton of the Johnny Hartman album. A nice antidote to the Kenny Gs and CD 101 playlist.
Feel free to bag on that portion of my career. In between longer stints at Atlantic Records (a better first job out of college I could not imagine) and Sony I was stuck at GRP, reporting to a workaholic who expected everyone to put in 60+ hours a week. That’s not what soured me on the label, though. I think they just became too formulaic with the music, packaging, marketing, etc. Sounds like you worked in music retail. Where was that, and for how long? I had three record store jobs during high school & college so it’s always fun to compare notes.
Wow. I haven’t heard this stuff in forever. In the late 80’s, I used to listen to a ‘new age’ radio show at night called “Lights Out.” They played lots of Rippingtons, Shadowfax, Acoustic Alchemy, Randy Tico and tons of others. Even Chick Corea and Jean Luc Ponty from that era. Loved it. Weather Channel music!
Thanks for the feedback, Kevin. I’m glad I could provide this musical flashback for you. It was actually refreshing to hear artists like The Rippingtons and the others you mentioned on the radio back then. Sure, it sounded good on the Weather Channel, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the music and individual performances. I saw The Rippingtons, Spyro Gyra, David Benoit and numerous other smooth jazz artists in the ’80s & ’90s, either individually and at jazz festivals, and they were always enjoyable. Not sure I would get as excited about them now but they were the soundtrack of my life for a number of years.
Yep, new to me! Intriguing though.
Thanks for checking this out, Mike. Wasn’t expecting you to be intrigued. Perplexed? Possibly. Repulsed? Likely. 😀
Well Rich, count me in for having had a (brief) GRP phase too, before my MD told me to cut back on fats and sugars!
I quite like some Yellowjackets (esp. the first album) and still spin Spyro Gyra now and then (Ms Connection likes them – the first album will probably soundtrack her birthday this Sunday).
Another band (from another reviled label!!) I still quite like is Shadowfax. Do you know them?
PS. Sorry if it seemed I dropped our previous Genesis thread. I wrote a long Comment reply and posted it, but somehow it disappeared. So I wrote the damn thing again – slightly more clearly… and that went too. So I gave up. Sorry.
I figured the odds were about 25% for you liking this kind of thing, Bruce, so it’s nice to know you’ve defied expectations. My GRP phase ended around the time I worked there (for a year in ’94/’95). I don’t think it was the boring work or the awful boss that affected my enjoyment as much as the law of diminishing returns kicking in. Also, I started listening to a lot of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, etc. so my tastes in instrumental music had moved on.
I own one Shadowfax album (The Dreams Of Children) and I’ve always liked it. Played it within the last year, for the first time in a loooong time, and it held up pretty well. They were on Windham Hill, right? I also have George Winston’s December which is another excellent album from that era. It’s a great holiday album that you can listen to anytime. Speaking of holiday albums, the three GRP Christmas CDs get at least one spin every December.
Sorry our Genesis discussion was rudely disrupted by ghosts in the machine. Unfortunately, the internet can often be a land of confusion. 😛
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That final para made me COL (chuckle out loud).
Yep, easy to see that, as you moved into the demanding but deeply rewarding worlds of Miles, Ornette, Charlie and John, Dave Grusin would lose traction rapidly.
In the VC collection are a 3 track GRP Christmas ‘Sampler’ (for tasting Xmas, presumably) and a 3 CD GRP survey. So still a presence in the music room. Unfortunately the GRP comp sits next to a really interesting Impulse! comp, and so rarely survives the listening cut.
I’m sorry, I just can’t follow you here. I’m not a big jazz fan, but I’ve found a few I like – Vince Garaldi, Dave Brubeck, a few others, but no, just no.
No need to apologize…this genre is not for everyone. Even I’m not much of a fan anymore, but since I created this series to highlight the albums I loved in 1986 I had to include The Rippingtons.
I came across your blog on this Sunday morning whilst I sit here listening to The Rippingtons Moonlighting! We seem to have had similar “upbringings” in our discovery of the musical world. My tastes have changed and evolved over the years (and continue to do so) but I always have room for a bit of The Ripps. I just wanted to say Hi and thanks for your blog made enjoyable reading. Oh…let’s not forget the rather groovy album covers that The Rippingtons have.
Hi Richie. Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m happy to meet another unapologetic Rippingtons fan. Their music is perfect for Sunday mornings. It does sound like we have very similar approaches to music listening, holding on to our old favorites even as our tastes continue to change & evolve. I completely agree about their artwork. Their jazz cat may be as iconic in the smooth jazz genre as Iron Maiden’s Eddie is to heavy metal. I hope you’re enjoying Sunday afternoon in the UK. I really appreciate your feedback.