Cote D’Azur 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. So much so that on tour throughout the U.S. in the Summer of 2010, The Rippingtons gave their thousands of loyal fans an extraordinary gift. Months before the official release of the album, the band complemented their run of classic hits with an unprecedented sweep of six songs from the new collection.
Freeman knew he was taking a gigantic leap of faith—yet he was so excited about his new musical explorations that he (and bandmates Jeff Kashiwa, Rico Belled, Bill Heller and Dave Karasony) couldn’t wait to share them.
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 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.
After so many excursions to the country--and train trips from Paris to Cote D’Azur (the French Riviera)--that he loses count, Freeman felt music stirring inside him that was exotic, deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever written and produced before —quite a bold statement considering that their music has played such a defining role in contemporary jazz since the release of Moonlighting in 1986. He also feels that both musically and technically, Cote D’Azur takes an incredible leap forward.
“This is the best album I’ve ever written,” he says, “and unlike on any other Rippingtons recording, the music is a pristine crystallization of the way I first heard it in my head. I think the incredible cultural connection between France and America hit me one night in Nice when I was watching a show on the history of St. Tropez. Brigitte Bardot was so well known as a model and film actress, but in the 60s she also did hundreds of music videos of French remakes of songs that were big hits in America. Remakes of everything from Elvis to the Beatles were huge. Johnny Hallyday is a French music superstar who patterned himself after Elvis. All of this taught me how close our cultures really are. They also were big into American surf music in the early 60s, and that inspired the new song ‘Le Calypso.’ All of this, combined with Yaredt’s French heritage, really made me fall in love with the country.”
Those who choose to take the beautiful inner and outer journey as Freeman envisions it will find themselves on an immediate, fast paced tropical whirlwind on the title track “Cote D’Azur,” which features his snappy acoustic melody —that is, until the chorus, when Freeman joins forces with Kashiwa’s explosive sax. The exotic, steel guitar and organ laced “Le Calypso” has Kashiwa soaring over a bluesy Calypso vibe and Freeman reminds us of the proximity of France to Spain on the wild flamenco fiesta named after the town of “Bandol.” “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. No journey through the region would be complete without a late night “Riviera Jam,” a danceable, high energy track led by an intense guitar/sax hook. Not quite ready to pack his bags, Freeman has one last jam session on “Rue Paradis,” and then takes a final look towards the calm sea on the romantic closing track “Mesmerized,” which he co-wrote with Leon.
In recent years, Freeman has noticed that The Rippingtons’ fan base has increased exponentially as the group’s longtime admirers transfer their passion for the music to their children. Not every Rippingtons album was directly inspired by a major Freeman hobby, but collectively, they have formed the life soundtrack for hundreds of thousands of contemporary jazz fans worldwide for what is now a quarter century. When Freeman lived in Colorado, he kept things fun and close to home as he explored his love for the slopes on Curves Ahead and Black Diamond. Topaz took fans to the nearby Southwest before Freeman moved to South Florida, where he expressed his passion for Life in the Tropics and his deep interest in Latin music (further enhanced by his relationship with Leon) on Wild Card. While in Florida, he also became a pretty intense golfer, a favorite recreational activity he chronicled via Let It Ripp, and became an avid art collector and visual artist—which fans learned about more on 2009’s Modern Art.
The titles of each hit Ripps album has often reflected Freeman’s deep wanderlust, whether he had actually been to the places he wrote about or was just dreaming of them in musical terms. These include Kilimanjaro, Tourist in Paradise, Welcome to the St. James Club, Weekend In Monaco, Live in L.A., Sahara, Brave New World and Live Across America. In 2006, the band celebrated two decades of instrumental magic with The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary, a remarkable CD/DVD package that included a CD of all new Ripps music and a DVD featuring a colorful retrospective as well as exciting videos from over the years.
Freeman says, “I was talking to (drummer) Dave Karasony recently about how incredible it is that we’ve been around for so long and are still having so much fun. Making music and touring is more fun than ever now and it’s only recently that I realize how lucky we are to be doing that. I still love getting out there, meeting the fans, hearing their stories, and then taking time off and traveling with Yaredt to places I had only dreamed of before.”
On their latest Peak Records album, Russ Freeman and The Rippingtons take their lucky fans on a trip of a lifetime to Cote D’Azur. Traveling with them is their trademark jazz cat, by artist Bill Mayer, who again graces the CD cover art. Next time out, who knows? Freeman’s musical passport still has a lot of open space to be stamped. The journey continues!