The Rippingtons still exploring musical boundaries

Published on July 30th, 2018

By Jim Dail

Many bands have a leader, someone who handles song selection, songwriting, producing and whatever. Over the years, Russ Freeman has been that guy in many ways for The Rippingtons, who will perform Saturday, August 4 with David Benoit and Marc Antoine at Thornton Winery as part of the 2018 Champagne Jazz Concert Series.

“What’s interesting is how the roles have expanded over the years,” Freeman said. “I certainly write the music and do a lot of the arranging. But the songs have been expanded by the players themselves and abilities of everyone in the band.”

With more than 30 years and 22 albums, there’s certainly little left to prove, considering that every album has hit the Billboard top 5.

The Rippingtons began as a recording project featuring Freeman, David
Benoit, Kenny G and Brandon Fields. Soon after, Freeman formed a touring
group and the rest is history.That said, the band has not been a concrete collection of musicians, with a
number of players part of the band or guest starring in the studio over the
years, including such jazz stalwarts as Dave Koz, Bob James, Kirk Whalum and
Joe Sample.

“One reason it has taken two years for me is that it is a steep learning curve to try to achieve something I haven’t done,” he said. “I reach for it intellectually, thinking about what is it going to be about. That process is so important before you play a single note. I let my brain work out all the problems.”

Growing up in Nashville, Freeman was exposed to plenty of music and musicianship.

“It was quality musicianship, growing up there,” he said. “I had the good fortune to have my dad become friends with studio players. I was just thinking about it and one of the things the producer was saying was ‘Where is the melody?’ No matter what you do, there has to be melody. It was such a positive exposure for me. That probably paved the way for my entire career.”

And he sees a shift away from that in recent times.

“It’s funny but I think in popular music we’ve migrated to more rhythm music,” he said. “With the advent of rap it was non-melodic. There ae different components of music and rhythm is powerful, but something I learned when I was doing music therapy is the power of it is in the melody and harmony.”

One area he has added to in terms of the music is a bit more electronics.

“We had some success with more electronic-based music, and I am trying to integrate more electronics,” he said. “With humans paving some new ground, you have got to take a risk. You cannot keep doing the same thing over and over. I try to write succinct melodies, and I think my skills as an arranger and producer have gotten better. Now it is a challenge to find time to do the mixing.”

Part of that is the fact that the band plays non-stop all over the globe.

“It’s been a super busy summer,” he said. “I used to not like it but there’s a benefit. I feel warmed up, our chops are on, and the band is sounding great.  I do feel we can do that and still interact and record.”

When you talk to Freeman, it is clear that he is a perfectionist when it comes to the aura of a song.

“We handcraft our CDs, and they are made with love and care,” he said. “We were kids when we started and now we are experts. But there’s a double-edged sword. Anyone can create music, but the difficulty is creating good music.”

As Freeman puts it, part of that is realizing that you can still learn as a musician.

Even after all these years, I’m still trying to hone my craft,” he said. “It’s not just trying to learn in a year and repeat it 30 times. You’ve got to innovate and you’ve got to keep exploring and challenging yourself.”

That also includes different instruments.

“I picked up the pedal steel late and so glad I did,” he said. “I’m self-taught on it. I kind of wish my GFI [brand] had a couple more pedals on it but it really sounds good. It can provide a texture.”

Of course, anytime you have a band that has recorded as much as The Rippingtons, the questions of set lists comes up often.

“We just stack our set with things we know the crowd loves,” he said. “We’ve arrived at a formula that is successful. We do try to rotate songs around and that’s what is great about having such a big catalog. We try to put some medleys together and cram some songs in that way. But it all has to fit together.”

IF YOU GO

When:  7 p.m., Saturday, August 4

Where: Thornton Winery, Temecula

Admission: General admission: $85, Gourmet supper: Sold Out

Information: Call 951-699-3021 or visit Website, www.thorntonwine.com

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