Because early Rippingtons albums like Moonlighting, Kilimanjaro and Tourist in Paradise were so instrumental in fostering my love for contemporary jazz (it wasn’t even called “smooth” in those days!), the release of any album by Russ Freeman and his band is a special occasion in my musical heart. Musically and geographically, I’m always wondering where they’re going to take me next!
Longtime Ripps fans know that Freeman has long had a penchant for naming songs and albums after exotic places (“Aruba,” “Kenya,” “Morocco,” Weekend in Monaco, Sahara, et al), but there’s something deeper and even more transcendent and intimate going on with Cote D’Azur. More than simply a gathering of “musical postcards” from the Southern region of France, this is a daring, full-scale exploration of world that fascinates Freeman and, as he has discovered, has more ties to American culture than he ever imagined.
One of the most exciting creative currents flowing through recent Rippingtons recordings is Freeman’s collaboration with his wife Yaredt Leon, a hit songwriter in her own right who contributed tracks to the Latin-themed Wild Card (2005) and Modern Art (2009). Cote D’Azur is bookended with songs they wrote together, the high energy title track and the beautiful “Mesmerized.” Freeman originally met Leon in Los Angeles—where the couple recently moved after many years in South Florida—and she has been the consummate travel partner these past years. For a time, he couldn’t get enough of Italy, but the minute the Leon (whose mixed heritage is Colombian-French) introduced him to her father’s homeland of France, Freeman was hooked. He had always been attracted to Europe because of its history, art and architecture but found that beyond that, the French were the warmest, friendliest and funniest people he had ever met.
Listeners will immediately understand where he’s coming from as they find themselves on an immediate, fast paced tropical whirlwind on the title track “Cote D’Azur,” which features his snappy acoustic melody over a balmy tropical atmosphere—that is, until the chorus, when Freeman joins forces with Jeff Kashiwa’s explosive sax. The exotic, steel guitar and organ laced “Le Calypso” has Kashiwa soaring over a bluesy Calypso vibe that includes trippy percussion effects. Freeman reminds us of the proximity of France to Spain on the wild flamenco fiesta named after the town of “Bandol”; his acoustic guitar swirls with dense Spanish percussion, rolling basslines and a later, lively clapping interlude. “Sainte Maxime” has a trademark Ripps easy funk flow that bursts into a high flying exchange between Kashiwa’s sax and Freeman’s rocking electric guitar.
Along the way, Freeman decides to send a sensual and playful “Postcard from Cannes,” which will inspire images of simply chilling at the beach looking out at the lovely, green/azure Mediterranean. Each time he’s traveled to Marseilles, the always attuned musician has heard the colorful strains of Middle Eastern music—an influence he draws on to create the powerful, multi-faceted “Passage To Marseilles.” At the other (Eastern) end of the Cote D’Azur is “Provence,” which takes us on an easygoing late afternoon ride through wine country via Freeman’s soulful and cool electric guitar melody and old school soul-jazz Fender Rhodes harmonies.
Having been to Nice, France a few years ago, I enjoyed reliving the experience using The Ripps’ latest album as a soundtrack. But Freeman’s musical passport still has a lot of open squares to be stamped, and it’s exciting to think of where he’s going to take us next!