Ah, it’s good to see the Jazz Cat again. Despite numerous changes of style and personnel over the years, the grinning visage of cover artist Bill Mayer’s stylized feline has remained a solid constant throughout the Rippingtons’ 19-year existence. Nevertheless, as fun a band mascot as the ‘Cat may be, he’d never be able to gloss over a dud of an album. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to; Wild Card is the group’s best release of the 2000s.

The Ripps’ last two records, 2000’s Life in the Tropics and 2003’s Let it Ripp, were lively and sounded good enough, but they seemed to fall short of the high watermark set by earlier albums such as Curves Ahead and Tourist in Paradise, the latter of which was named the best contemporary jazz album of all time by Jazziz Magazine. (And let’s face it, nothing is going to overwrite the mental image of the Jazz Cat using a guitar as a surfboard.) Wild Card plays around with the formula employed by the previous two projects, using a tinge of Latin influence and a brand new recording engineer to set it apart from what’s gone before; though not the most daring musical moves ever made, they generate enough intrigue to keep the listener absorbed for the first few spins.

After a dozen or so listens, the wheat and the chaff definitely separate. It has become standard operating procedure in the last few years for bands that formerly trafficked only in instrumental compositions to throw in a vocal track or two for commercial reasons, and the Rippingtons are no different. As usual, this reviewer eventually finds himself blowing past the likes of “El Vacil