A smooth-jazz concert that doesn't entirely live up to its billing isn't necessarily a bad thing. Take, for example, the Rippingtons concert at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Wednesday night.
The veteran pop-jazz band is touring with reedman Eric Marienthal, who is a member of Chick Corea's Elektric Band. Playing alto, tenor and soprano saxes, plus an EWI (electronic wind instrument), Marienthal brought some touches of fusion jazz to the concert, first by weaving or exchanging colorful lines with guitarist-bandleader Russ Freeman, then by jacking up the tension with spirited and often keening improvisations. Freeman countered by emphasizing his rock and blues influences on electric guitar, punctuating pentatonic riffs with bent-note cries as his fingers moved up the fretboard.
Freeman's renewed interest in classical guitar also produced some welcome fusion-like diversions, particularly when he favored a percussive attack and flamenco-tinged flourishes while revisiting ballads from the band's recent album "Wild Card." Older tunes, including "Tourist in Paradise" and "Villa by the Sea," delighted the packed house, but the pieces drawn from "Wild Card," which features Marienthal and several other guests, produced the most surprises and contrasts.
The sextet occasionally settled into the rigid backbeat grooves associated with smooth jazz and added the customary R&B accents. But the funk-flavored "Lay It Down," an extended showcase for bassist Kim Stone, was slyly executed and ranked among the evening's highlights. Another big plus was input from percussionist Scott Breadman, who frequently triggered polyrhythmic Latin excursions imaginatively orchestrated by keyboardist Bill Heller.
-- Mike Joyce