The Rippingtons

Modern Art

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Different musical historians will offer different opinions on exactly when smooth jazz got started. One could argue that the commercial pop-jazz that guitarist Wes Montgomery recorded for A&M with producer Creed Taylor in 1967 and 1968 (after Montgomery quit recording straight-ahead bop) marked the beginning of smooth jazz, but it was in the 1980s that the smooth jazz/NAC radio format really took off -- and the Rippingtons have often reaped the benefits of the format's popularity. Along the way, they have recorded plenty of innocuous, lightweight fluff; 2009's Modern Art often fits that description, but the 49-minute CD does have its moments. At times, guitarist Russ Freeman (the Rippingtons' founder and longtime leader) sounds like he yearns to break free of the smooth jazz/NAC format's constraints and limitations -- and a somewhat edgier side of the group asserts itself with decent results on "Body Art," the funky "Jet Set," and the title track. Also, there is a bit of an intrigue factor on the flamenco-tinged "Pastels on Canvas." But those tracks are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, Modern Art is highly formulaic and favors a "give the program directors what they want" approach. Do Freeman and his colleagues have what it takes to move the Rippingtons into serious fusion territory and give the group the sort of creative respectability that the Yellowjackets enjoy? Probably, but moving in that direction would scare away program directors, which is something that most of this album goes out of its way to avoid doing. Again, Modern Art has its moments, but more often than not, this is yet another play-it-safe affair for the Rippingtons.

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