The Rippingtons, featuring Russ Freeman, have undergone numerous personnel changes over the years. Although the band has been more stable since Let It Ripp (Peak, 2003), it's still evolving. Modern Art attempts to walk the fine line between observing the past and moving into the future.
Freeman founded the group in the mid-'80s and has been the principle songwriter and producer throughout its existence. In the early years, an ever-changing rotation of session musicians comprised The Rippingtons' family. Since Let It Ripp, the core group has consisted of Freeman on guitars, Dave Karasony on drums and Bill Heller on keyboards. Now, longtime saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa is back after being away for several years and bassist Rico Belled replaces Kim Stone, the only one besides Freeman to be a Rippington throughout the 1990s and well into the present decade. Trumpeter Rick Braun makes a guest appearance on "Love Story."
Modern Art is restrained. The variance from the arbitrary target of four minutes ranges from plus 55 seconds to minus 21 seconds; all 11 songs are in that range. Not that every track needs to be six minutes or longer to be good. But it is ironic that an album titled Modern Art would revert back to the radio format-friendly time stamps that dominated the smooth jazz landscape during the 1990s.
"Body Art" is the cool song of the day. Belled's funky bass line helps set it up. Freeman and Kashiwa call and respond before pairing up for the melody. The two exchange solos as well. Heller is subtle in the background, plugging in some horn synths at key points.
"Age of Reason" is another cool pick. Kashiwa is clean and free on the alto sax. Freeman plays the acoustic guitar, as he does on most of the tracks. Heller has some nice fills to answer the soloists.
Yaredt Leon, who collaborated with Freeman on the Latin-themed Wild Card (Peak, 2005) and is now married to him, composed the elegant "Sweet Lullaby." The acoustic guitar carries this tune. The accompaniment is subtle, save for Heller's piano solo. Karasony comes out a little more with crisp hi-hat play, which is accented by rim shots during the closing sequence.
Though good listening throughout, Modern Art may disappoint listeners who favor the edgier, rock group aspect of The Rippingtons. On the other hand, those who adore the smooth jazz radio format will find plenty to love about this. Several songs are heavy on rhythm synths and production. It's still a good album, but compared to Let It Ripp, Wild Card and 20th Anniversary, it represents a step in a different direction.
Track Listing: Modern Art; Paris Groove; Black Book; Pastels on Canvas; One Step Closer; I Still Believe; Body Art; Age of Reason; Sweet Lullaby; Jet Set; Love Story.
Personnel: Russ Freeman: guitars, electric sitar; keyboards, rhythm and bass programming; Dave Karasony: drums; Rico Belled: bass; Bill Heller: keyboards, accordion; Jeff Kashiwa: saxophone, EWI; Rick Braun: trumpet (11).