Whether traveling musically to places like Aruba or Kenya, or spending a playful weekend in Monaco as he did in 1992, Russ Freeman has mastered the art of the exotic, smooth-jazz sojourn. Rather than getting a passport this time, he and the new Rippingtons lineup (with guest Paul Taylor replacing longtime saxman Jeff Kashiwa) take a trip just down the road from Freeman's Colorado spread, to the New Mexico arts community of Taos. Long a brilliant classical guitarist, Freeman upped the ante with a memorable flamenco jaunt on the Rippingtons' last album Black Diamond. Here, inspired by the Spanish vibe of his adopted environment, he more fully explores those traditions in an accessible pop context. On the opening track "Taos," he follows a gently loping flamenco pattern with a powerful electric guitar-driven hook, reminding us that he is, indeed, one of smooth jazz's best melody writers and producers. "Under a Spanish Moon" begins with a rumbling flamenco intro by Tom Gannaway, then becomes a lively, atmosphere-heavy, Latin-flavored romp -- led by Freeman's swaying acoustic melody, enhanced by a sparkling Dave Kochanski piano solo -- along a dusty desert trail. Freeman's liner notes explain that his interest in all things Western grew out of his 1998 dual project with Craig Chaquico, From the Redwoods to the Rockies. The jumpy acoustic jam "Snakedance" sounds like an outtake from those sessions, but with Freeman himself crisply counterpointing rhythm and melody lines with two interweaving acoustic guitar tracks. With soundscape master Steve Reid having departed from the band and only appearing on one track here, Freeman turns for spiritual atmosphere to Native American flutist Robert Tree Cody. Cody appears on three tunes, blending perfectly with Freeman's guitars on "Stories of the Painted Desert" and taking the lead over a rolling, darkly toned bassline on "Led Here by an Eagle." His presence adds a touch of authenticity to Freeman's brilliant reflection on the spirit of the Southwest.
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AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran