The Rippingtons has always been Russ Freeman's band: Freeman has always composed all the tunes, produced the records, and been featured prominently. It started as sort of a phantom group that was really Freeman and some studio pals, and developed into an actual touring ensemble. The band gradually assumed more of a group identity as long-time members such as Jeff Kashiwa (saxophones and EWI), Kim Stone (bass), and Steve Reid (percussion) became more prominent parts of the mix. But for their latest album, it seems to me that the focus is back to being almost entirely on Freeman. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, since Freeman is richly talented as a guitarist, composer, programmer and all-around MIDI soundsmith.
But the first six songs on this album sounds heavily "manufactured" – technically perfect, but rather faceless. Despite the presence of several of the bandmates and the natural warmth of Freeman's acoustic guitar on some cuts, it sounds like a one-man synth show. Freeman goes through all the right motions, but the spark that has ignited so many previous Rippingtons’ recordings just isn't there.
The program finally catches fire on three of the last four tunes. "North Peak" is fueled by the driving fury and intensity of Steve Reid's percussion. Next, trumpeter supreme Arturo Sandoval ignites the passionate and energetic "Angelfire" with a virtuostic trumpet solo. Saxophonist / flutist Nelson Rangell enlivens the otherwise over-programmed "Jewel Thieves," and the CD closes with the title cut, which features a more laid-back acoustic sound.