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.