The Rippingtons, keyboardist Brian Culbertson and saxophonist Mindi Abair duly revealed the strengths and weaknesses of presenting contemporary instrumental music in concert. On this particular night, the headliners should have been taking notes from Culbertson, a captivating showman whose music was loaded with rise-and-fall dynamics.
Much of the set from guitarist Russ Freeman and his Rippingtons was lifted from their 12th album, “Let It Ripp” (Peak/Concord), a title that’s more wishful thinking than apt description. The Rippingtons’ problem is that they play live with the same clean, antiseptic approach they use in the studio. A frequent Latin tinge (Nashville-born Freeman now resides in Florida) in songs like “South Beach Mambo” and “Avenida” came off as Santana-lite, and band members didn’t even break a sweat on a closing medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and “Fire.”
The only songs that rose above the norm were the soaring, gospel-tinged “Avalon,” an impassioned showcase for Eric Marienthal on tenor sax, and the digital groove of “Mr. 3.”
Culbertson, promoting his new album “Come On Up” (Warner Bros.), prowled the stage like a modern-day Cab Calloway, playing the hipster role decked out in paisley-on-vinyl threads and cool sunglasses. Confident, sweet-natured and audience-savvy, Culbertson endeared himself in fun ways such as sharing a radio collage of the R&B hits that influenced him, then humorously having his band members turn away from the crowd as they laid down some sexy mood music.
His songs leaned heavily on effective funk backbeats topped with warm, sophisticated chord changes; he surprised the crowd by darting backstage and emerging with a trombone, “ripping” off a bravura solo on “Get It On,” then executing the tricky ensemble passages of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” with his three-piece horn section.
Opening act Abair shows promise on her debut, “It Just Happens That Way” (GRP). She offered a contemporary nod to Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, playing his classic “Work Song” set to a hip-hop groove. Abair essentially plays simple, repetitive pop licks, but she executes them flawlessly and with a sunny stage presence.