Russ Freeman / The Rippingtons

Côte d'Azur

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The Rippingtons have a long history of coming up with album titles and song titles that were inspired by foreign locations; their album titles have included Weekend in Monaco, Kilimanjaro, and Life in the Tropics, and their song titles have included "Morocco," "St. Tropez," "Seven Nights in Rome," "One Summer Night in Brazil," and "Under a Spanish Moon." Unfortunately, they also have a long history of making sure that the music itself isn't as interesting as the titles, which is to be expected when artists go out of their way to give smooth jazz/NAC radio stations the sort of innocuous background music they think program directors will accept. But Côte D'Azur, it turns out, has more going for it than many of the Rippingtons' other albums. In French, the name Côte D'Azur refers to what is called the French Riviera in English -- and according to Rippingtons leader Russ Freeman, the material on this early-2011 release was inspired by his many visits to the South of France. Côte D'Azur may not be especially French-sounding to American Francophiles who equate France with chanson and French pop, but it's important to remember that France, like the United States and Great Britain, is quite multicultural. France, for example, has many people of Arabic descent; so it makes perfect sense for "Passage to Marseilles" to have a strong Middle Eastern/North African energy. France has its share of Caribbean immigrants as well, and the Caribbean flavor on "Le Calypso" is equally appropriate. Thankfully, Freeman allows a certain amount of edginess to assert itself on this 40-minute CD; those who associate the Rippingtons with mind-numbing elevator music will be pleasantly surprised by how much edgier they sound on "Passage to Marseilles" and "Le Calypso" as well as on the funky "Riviera Jam" and the flamenco-flavored "Bandol." That's the good news; the bad news is that Côte D'Azur has its share of elevator fluff as well, which is regrettable because on the best parts of the disc, Freeman sounds like he longs to liberate himself from the shackles of smooth jazz/NAC radio. But again, Côte D'Azur has its moments -- and it's good to see Freeman allowing more edginess to emerge at least some of the time.

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