Greg Chaquico & Russ Freeman

Greg Chaquico & Russ Freeman

From the Redwoods to the Rockies

The pairing of Craig Chaquico and Russ Freeman, two of the most dynamic and innovative best selling guitarists in Smooth Jazz, is much more than simply a marketing director’s dream. From The Redwoods to the Rockies, whose title is a tribute to the natural and spiritual connections between their respective home regions, not only reflects the uncanny chemistry the musicians discovered working together, but also the creative freedom both had outside their usual recording commitments. Although never straying too far beyond the wondrous melodic simplicity and rhythmic energy which characterize Grammy-nominated Chaquico’s solo albums on Higher Octave and Freeman’s ten albums as leader of the Rippingtons, From The Redwoods to the Rockies gave each a chance to expand their palettes, feed off the other’s unique musical outlooks and draw from that inspiration to create a truly remarkable dual recording.

Having mutually admired each other’s music for many years, Chaquico and Freeman hit it off immediately when they both played at the Phoenix Jazz Festival and a benefit concert for the Oklahoma City bombing victims. They soon realized they had numerous things in common as well as complementary traits they thought might translate to a musical setting.

“I began studying Craig’s strengths as a writer and artist and realized he comes from a very different place than I do,” says Freeman, who lives near Colorado Springs. “His style is simple and truthful, and the straightforward person he is comes through in his songs.” Returning the compliment, Chaquico adds, “I always loved the Rippingtons’ music and production, but I was really blown away by Russ’s guitar playing. At first we didn’t think we’d have the time, but the first day we got together, we laid the groundwork for three songs. From there, we found a solid artistic blend.”

The secret to the success of the project lay in checking their solo artist egos at the door as well as addressing their similarities and differences. Aside from being extraordinarily gifted and accomplished guitarists and producers, the most obvious common strength is their love for melody and desire to tell a story-with a distinct beginning, middle and end-in a song. Both have tackled interesting themes before; The Rippingtons’ Brave New World (1996) addressed the modern internet age, while their latest hit cd, Black Diamond, explored his passion for skiing and the challenges the downhill experience represent that parallel life. Chaquico’s four Higher Octave Music releases-including his latest, 1997’s Once in a Blue Universe–have delved into environmental and Native American issues. This time, however, inspired by the magnificent forest regions each live in, they tell the musical equivalent to a well known Native American legend about a princess and her warrior.

Chaquico relates: “They come from two different tribes and are forbidden to see each other. They have a secret rendezvous, whereupon a medicine man turns them into adjoining mountains, which sleep together for all eternity and dream together for all seasons, withstanding the winds of time. The lakes and streams that flow between the princess and warrior are thought of as the children who connect them. Both of us are huge fans of the environment, prone to gazing at a sunset for half an hour in silence, as well as Native American things. Everything fit perfectly.”

The songs and their titles perfectly reflect the unfolding of this tale. First there is the seductive drive time piece “Riders of the Ancient Winds,” which blends Freeman’s electric jazz meditations with Chaquico’s snappy acoustic spirit. Introducing our characters, the brooding “The Maiden and The Warrior” weaves a mysterious web of lush guitar solos and existential conversations, pushed along playfully by Paul Taylor’s smoky soprano sax. The title track opens with a gorgeous David Benoit piano solo before evolving into a sweet reflective ballad that shows off Freeman and Chaquico’s acoustic grace.

Both have an affinity for world music, and “Samba” combines Rippingtons-like synth textures, a shuffling Brazilian groove, and some aggressive acoustic guitar interaction, along with a bright Benoit piano solo. The bouncy, throbbing “Tribal Runner,” offers an hypnotic duality between Freeman’s and Chaquico’s acoustic harmonies and lead melodies, while “Sweetwater” finds their strings dancing and swaying in a flashy repartee over bluesy synth flavors and pitter patter percussion. The melancholy “Change of Seasons” combines subtle soundscaping, moody synth textures, Taylor’s dreamy sax and the duo’s musings on the passage of time.

Slightly off the main theme but no less engaging are two tunes which pay homage to Chaquico and Freeman’s mutual guitar influences. The laid back ballad “Seattle Child” remembers Jimi Hendrix and those who have gone before, while the tender elegy “Fallen Heroes” remembers two influential Smooth Jazz/New Age guitarists who recently passed away at a young age-Michael Hedges and Acoustic Alchemy’s Nick Webb.

While one of the great joys for the two recording From The Redwoods to the Rockies was finding out how much they shared as musicians and friends, Chaquico and Freeman also delighted in complementing each other through the things which set them apart. “Our approach to soloing and the way our notes sound are very different, because his roots are unique from mine,” says Chaquico, who played lead guitar for the Pop/Rock supergroup Jefferson Starship for 16 years. “I’m the rock and roller, while he’s more into urban music and jazz. So when we trade leads, you can hear two totally separate personalities expressing themselves. But it’s not a competition. We both learned a lot from each other and helped each other reach new heights.”

Freeman adds, “Craig has a real trademark sound which listeners identify with, while I’m more the chameleon, supporting any sort of song and musical environment depending on what it calls for. Once a tune was written, we exchanged, sometimes over our answering machines, melodies and solos. We made a chart, who plays solos and who carries which melody where. Craig was always okay with whatever I suggested. It was a very openminded atmosphere.”

To which Chaquico responds, “It was like a full blown instrumental conversation, and easier than we thought it might be to find that common ground. Growing up, I was always aware of the alienation between rock and jazz guitarists. But you have to overcome that. The common ground is that music is music. And the key is to let go of the stereotypes and just play.”

Doing just that has allowed them each to become among the most successful artists in the Smooth Jazz genre. The remarkable success of Russ Freeman’s Rippingtons has perfectly paralleled the artistic and commercial growth of the whole Smooth Jazz phenomenon-beginning with 1986’s Moonlighting and carrying through 1997’s #1 hit Black Diamond, their Windham Hill debut. Freeman’s picture perfect melodies and stunning production values, along with the group’s powerful live performances (chronicled on 1993’s CD and video Live in L.A.) have been as much a part of the instrumental landscape as artist Bill Mayer’s chameleonic jazz cat which graces all ten Ripps’ album covers.

After wailing for years on such Jefferson Starship (later Starship) hits like “Jane,” “Find Your Way Back” (which Chaquico wrote) and “We Built This City,” Chaquico launched his solo career in 1993 with Acoustic Highway. The album was honored as Billboard’s Top New Age Indie album for the year. Its follow up, Acoustic Planet reached #1 on Billboard’s New Age/Adult Alternative chart and received a Grammy nomination for best New Age album. A Thousand Pictures, which featured saxman Richard Elliot, was hailed as a breakthrough for its use of enhanced CD technology in a limited edition.

“The first two albums were like travelogues or musical postcards, while the third is more like a musical diary about feelings and relationships, which are the real heart of my life,” he says. Overall, his first three Higher Octave releases sold a combined total of over 500,000 units and have been among the most popular and critically praised albums of all time.

Jazziz Magazine’s assessment of Moonlighting as the most influential album in Smooth Jazz history was due not only to the resulting popularity of Freeman’s unique composing style, but also the great solo careers it launched-those of David Benoit, Dave Koz, Gregg Karukas, Steve Reid, Brandon Fields and Kenny G (who had just released his starmaking Duotones album). A Nashville native, Freeman released his first project Nocturnal Playground in 1985 and has been with his current band (percussionist Reid, saxman Jeff Kashiwa, and bassist Kim Stone are the core members; David Kochanski on keyboards and David Anderson on drums are the newest members) ever since. The Rippingtons albums include Kilimanjaro (1988), Tourist in Paradise (1989), Welcome to the St. James Club (1990), Curves Ahead (1991), Weekend in Monaco (1992), Live in L.A. (1993), Sahara (1994), Brave New World (1996) and Black Diamond (1997). All true Rippingtons enthusiasts know the origin of the band’s name; it was an off the cuff idea based on one fan’s comment that “That band rips!”

Freeman’s non-Ripps projects have included 1993’s The Benoit/Freeman Project with longtime compadre David Benoit, and the seasonal solo release Holiday in 1995. He has also lent his production expertise to such artists as Japanese fusion band T Square, saxman Nelson Rangell, vocalists Carl Anderson, Jeffrey Osborne and Phil Perry among others. Along with longtime manager Andi Howard, Freeman is also a partner in Peak Records, which is distributed by Windham Hill Records.

Craig Chaquico and Russ Freeman–two brilliant guitarists and songwriters, two amazing artists, giving it a go and finding a common ground From The Redwoods to the Rockies. When you listen, see if you can feel the open air of both regions in the music, and feel the same freedom of expression that they felt in creating this remarkable project. As Freeman says, “This is really a radical departure for each of us, but for me in particular. It’s much mellower than what I usually do, less aggressive and more open. The key is, we were not afraid to be simple.”