The Rippingtons
Life In The Tropics






Life In The Tropics, what a bold and promising title that is! Envisioned by the Smooth Jazz band The Rippingtons, led by multi-instrumentalist Russ Freeman and released in 2000 on Peak Records, its eleven unique tracks unsurprisingly allow a journey through tropical coppices, ocean drives and remote beaches. So far, so wonderful, so common. Except that it isn’t true. Since the combo is a contemporary Jazz band, synthesizers, programmed drums and electric guitars are found aplenty, and so an adaptation takes place by not showing the real world with exclusively real instruments, but via many an oneiric pattern and susurrant surface. Life In The Tropics does therefore not necessarily capture the supposed or perceived magic of tropical island states and countries in touch with these climate zones, but what it lacks in these regards, it delivers with the help of transfiguring devices, mainly synths.


Similar to John Klemmer’s Brazilia (1979) which I rate very highly because of its amalgamation of the bandleader's ubiquitous aeriform tenor saxophone and string-heavy flashes hued in flamboyant colors, Life in The Tropics does not rely on tropical traditions, whatever they mean to the respective listener. Instead, clichéd pieces are presented, all of them reliant of bandleader Russ Freeman, guitarist Peter White, guest keyboarder Bob James of Fourplay fame, saxophonists Dave Koz, Paul Taylor and Eric Marienthal, percussionist Ramon Yslas and many other musicians. Here is a closer look at The Rippingtons' interpretation of vacations, relaxation and energetic vibes that appear among the way through the humid zones.


The opener Club Paradiso promises a scintillating vivacity, a vestibule to carefreeness, holiday haze supreme. The vintage Exotica listener, however, may not like the first instance of this album. Sure, ethereal synth washes and galactic glissandos are a given, but the arrangement itself may rely a tad too much on the Balearic flavor, with Peter White’s guitar exuding that dry, earthbound flavor that is the only gravitational force amid the crystalline flumes. Even wobbling acid arpeggios are included in the fresh reticulation. Caribbean Breeze then fathoms a midtempo midday with reverberated guitar chords plus their acoustic rhythm brethren, but leaves any kind of steel pan – programmed or not – at home. On a sidenote: steel pans appear later on this album.


The first hit comes in the shape of Cruisin’ Down Ocean Drive due to its fizzy percussion, the polyphonous saxophone coils and lively guitar whirls. The synths reside in the background and are only allowed to take over the scenery during the song’s apex; saltatory piano melodies are in the forefront. Exhilarative and loaded with different textures, this tune stands out! While Be Cool is a more nocturnal take on the endemic insouciance with an overly smooth lead trumpet communicating with delicately aerose guitar glints in an echoey minimalist wind chime-underlined percussion backing, Rhythm Of Your Life turns out to be a take on a song by Portrait member and R’n’B producer Michael Angelo Saulsberry. Latin pianos find their way into the album, as do scything brass bursts and bongo blebs. The female vocals, the over the top Spanish lyrics and oily guitars make this sunset-colored piece a bold misstep.


Meanwhile, Love Child returns to the smooth side of things, with angelic synth cascades, spacy flitters and wah wah-fied electric piano tones as polished as glass. The lead saxophone is equally streamlined and perfectly embedded in the mix. Granted, one definitely needs to approve of this soothing mood, but it is much better than the fiery escapade that came before it. In other news, Avenida Del Mar is a genuinely superb take, very hectic and lively, with Russ Freeman’s electric guitar carrying the whole arrangement which is otherwise supercharged with Latin pianos and eruptive horns. It is Bob James’ keyboard which agglutinates the countermovements and fuels the bongo-driven wild ride. Even a cautious Crime Jazz atmosphere is interwoven. Progressive and dreamy, Avenida Del Mar is the album’s centerpiece and highlight.


I Found Heaven resides on the diametrically opposite line; a slow Funk piece at heart, its cosmic electric piano sparks and crunchy fillips encapsulate the vocal performance of Gary Brown. A seraphic take with hints of New Age schemes. While South Beach Mambo turns out to be another midtempo Latin fanfaronade with bold brass movements and electric guitar prongs, the title track Life In The Tropics is a comparatively eclectic yet laid-back ride that is most keen on pumping drums, followed by the known mélange of synth nebulae and dialogs between the guitars and pianos, with the finale Island Aphrodisiac firing on all cylinders when it comes to sun-dappled Balearic guitars whose plasticity works in favor of the otherwise all too arbitrary arrangement. At least we get our programmed and processed steel pans as a farewell present.


Life In The Tropics is the famous hit-or-miss affair, as many synthesizer-backed artifacts of the Contemporary Jazz genre tend to be when a nostalgic angle is applied. The exoticism never unfolds in the veins of vintage material, and it doesn’t take a genius to point that out; synthesizers, electric guitars, programmed drums, there seems to be every mephitic device on board that should not be even close to the Exotica genre. No worries, for The Rippingtons are no Exotica band. They do, however, plan the occasional fleeting visit to exotic climes, as do their fellow bands such as Fourplay, the Pat Metheny Group or the one-off bond of Yavaz which led to their aesthetically similar Sea Of Cortez (1997). So there is no surprise in telling that Life In The Tropics is a failure when – and only when – viewed from the Exotica angle.


The melodies, however, shimmer and simmer, the cross-linkage between guitars and synths and the proclivity for feisty drums are not to be underestimated. And to be honest, tracks like the tropical tunnel vision Avenida Del Mar and the similarly luminescent Cruisin’ Down Ocean Drive capture and harbor sunny asphalt memories and the green verdure of unmentioned paradises. That inhabitants of Oahu or Miami shrug their shoulders in view to this prospect is understandable; other listeners who are not blessed to live in the Tropics might absorb something else – and then more of it – when these tunes are running. The Balearic touch of the album breaks the spell for me many a time, but this is just my personal preference. In the end, I’m not missing out entirely, for there are gems were the synthesis between acoustic and electronic instruments outshines the mediocre material. Life In The Tropics is available on CD and as a download version. 


Exotica Review 352: The Rippingtons – Life In The Tropics (2000). Originally published on Jun. 21, 2014 at