Russ Freeman : Jazz Fuses With Country for a Top 10 Sound

Russ Freeman is a self-professed "country bumpkin" from Nashville who also happens to be one of the hottest new names in contemporary jazz.

Last year, the 27-year-old fusion guitarist's debut album, "Nocturnal Playground," rocketed into the Top 10 on Billboard's national jazz chart within weeks of its release.

This year, "Moonlighting," an album Freeman recorded with three other fusion up-and-comers, including saxophonist Kenny G, as the Rippingtons, fared even better, peaking for several weeks at No. 5.

The Rippingtons were subsequently honored by Cashbox, another music industry trade magazine, as one of the top three electric jazz groups of 1987.

And Freeman himself has seen his creative use of the guitar synthesizer lauded by jazz critics in dozens of publications, from USA Today and the Washington Post to Guitar Player.

Not bad for a man who spent the first 18 years of his life in the country-Western capital of the world--and whose earliest influences are country stalwarts Chet Atkins and Merle Haggard.

"Actually, it's not as strange as it seems," said Freeman, who will perform with the Rippingtons tonight at the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa.

"There are different types of country music, and one style is very much like jazz," he said. "There are tons of guitar chops on old Chet Atkins and Merle Haggard records, and that's the stuff I listened to as a child.

"Even today, these little kids on porches in east Tennessee are playing some really great music that's not all that different from acoustic jazz, both in texture and in improvisation.

"And the other thing that's good about country is that, like jazz, it's a purely American art form."

Freeman's graduation from country to jazz came slowly. He learned to play the guitar at the age of 10, from a friend of his father who was an established Nashville session musician.

"I would follow him around from studio to studio and just watch him make records," Freeman said. "And by the time I was 16, I was doing session work myself, playing on everything from songwriter demonstration tapes to religious albums."

After hearing jazz albums by guitarists like George Benson and Larry Carlton, Freeman said, "I gradually evolved into that style of music and that style of playing."

And shortly after his 18th birthday, he said, he moved to Los Angeles with the intention of finding more studio work.

"At first, I was wondering, how the hell am I going to make a living?" Freeman said. "I wanted to get into jazz, but there were a lot more jazz musicians in Los Angeles than in Nashville.

"So I started doing all kinds of stuff, just to survive. I played on Jane Fonda's workout videos, albums by Engelbert Humperdinck and Anne Murray, and a bunch of commercials."

The entire time, Freeman added, he polished his jazz licks, experimented with a guitar synthesizer and started writing his own music.

"Finally, about two years ago, I was doing some work for this music publisher who owned a small jazz label, Brainchild Records, and when he heard some of my songs, he suggested I do a solo album," Freeman said.

"So I thought, 'What the hell, nobody's going to buy it, but at least it will give me more studio experience.' Much to my surprise, however, it became a Top 10 hit, and that's how the whole thing started."

Freeman maintains that despite its all-star cast, "Moonlighting," on the prestigious Passport Records label, is actually his second solo album.

"But because of contractual obligations, I couldn't release it under my own name, so I got together with three of the guys who backed me in the studio and formed the Rippingtons," he said. "When that album became an even bigger hit, Passport asked us to stay together, so we did."

Freeman attributes much of his overnight success to good timing.

"Fusion has really evolved over the last decade," he said. "It went from a frantic and fast style of music to a more melodic, textured sound, with a much larger palate of colors.

"As a result, fusion, or pop-jazz, as I prefer to call it, has gotten a lot more accessible. When I got signed, it was really starting to get popular, and I was able to ride the crest of that wave of acceptance."

Had he put out his two albums 10 years ago, Freeman added, "I doubt whether they would have made it."

And while he's glad they did "make it," he said, he would have been just as content if they hadn't.

"Instead of being No. 10 with a bullet (indicating a fast rise), my albums could have been No. 500 with an anchor, but the music would have been the same," Freeman said. "So I try to divorce myself from how well or how bad these things do on the charts and just gauge them by how well I do as a composer and as a musician.

"That way, you don't get your feelings hurt if your stuff doesn't sell."

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