The Rippingtons: Wild Card

Mark Sabbatini By

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Think of it as a visit to Cuba where the dining experience is grabbing a burger at El Rapido.

The government-run chain emulates American fast food with the same culinary verve as pizza joints, where ketchup is used for sauce. That's not to say the Rippingtons' Wild Card is stomach-churning—just a somewhat limp rendition of the usual fare.

Lead guitarist Russ Freeman's description of the album is commendable enough, focusing on Cuban/Miami salsa that expands on the authenticity of Latin jazz concepts explored on 2000's Life In The Tropics. Some of it succeeds, but the album isn't equal to releases like Live Across America or Kilimanjaro.

The Rippingtons are basically critic-proof and "real jazz" critics are expected to pan them anyhow, a futile exercise avoided here since the arguments are mere preaching to the converted. Still, lead guitarist Russ Freeman doesn't get a free pass, since he's performed noteworthy work both for the group and on his solo projects. At his best Freeman is a genius at escapism, assembling thick arrangements and melodies that hook listeners immediately. "Black Diamond" may resemble a TV sports show theme, but it sticks in one's head and stands up to repeat listens.

Not here. After maybe a dozen listens there still isn't anything that stands out. Trying to dig under the surface for some deeper musical thought process is also largely unsuccessful—and far more effort than most Rippingtons listeners will or should make. At best, it's inoffensive; at worst, like the vocal pop fluff of "Till You Come Back To Me," the cloying is enough that even loyalists may skip ahead.

Still, Freeman is a pro and everything here is assembled as such. Sounds compliment each other, soloists stay harmonious during their usual brief moments, and the theme is executed precisely, if not soulfully. Freeman touts things like the inclusion of "Cuban American superstar singers Willy Chirino and Albita," but maybe this is also the album's weakness—sort of like hyping whoever is the current "American Idol" as the best this country has to offer. It'd be interesting to hear some hungry, talented unknown provide a more authentic cultural contribution.

It's rare for a group to be as commercially successful as the Rippingtons have been for so long with so few changes in their overall approach—in fact, it's tough to think of anyone beyond Spyro Gyra that has. Other big names like Chick Corea, David Sanborn, and Pat Metheny have ventured into wide-ranging—and sometimes awful—projects far from the mainstream fusion that made them popular. Freeman could no doubt do justice to an album of classics or Medeski-like nu-funk, but with the current formula a near-certain success, he obviously has little incentive for doing so. So all but diehards will likely need to keep cherry-picking through the best of his group's releases—and in this case most will probably be better off waiting for next year's project.

Track Listing: 1. Gypsy Eyes; 2. Wild Card; 3. El Vacilon - (with Albita/Ozomatli); 4. Paradise; 5. Spanish Girl; 6. Mulate De Mi Amor - (with Willy Chirino); 7. Moonlight; 8. Till You Come Back To Me - (with Chante Moore); 9. Lay It Down; 10. King Of Hearts; 11. Into You; 12. Mulata De Mi Amor - (Instrumental); 13. In The End

Personnel: Russ Freeman (guitar, keyboards, programming); Eric Marienthal (saxophone); Bill Heller (piano, keyboards); Kim Stone (bass instrument); Dave Karasony (drums); Scott Breadman (percussion). Additional personnel include: Albita, Chante Moore

Title: Wild Card | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Peak Records


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