Topaz (Windham Hill Jazz/Peak; 49:02) is Rippingtons frontman Russ Freeman's lovingly wrought soundscape tribute to the American southwest, offered in the encapsulated context of a legend from Taos, New Mexico. The mix of Freeman's serene, free-flying jazz chorus guitar solos, the elemental whistles of carved flute and other native instruments, and the Rippingtons' signature synthesizer gloss often hits just the right pitch. "Stories of the Painted Desert," for example, is a serene mood-mender, building in ripples from Freeman's simple lead line for a spiritual effect. Album-opener "Taos" uses an acoustic strum for a wide-open feeling of flight, but achieves a spirits-in-nature quality by the haunted wooden flute refrains of Robert Tree Cody. Likewise "Led Here by an Eagle" boasts an otherworldly elemental melody over a lightly bustling modern background, reminiscent of the modern-chant works of Enigma in the early '90s. This context brings out a creativity in the usually reliable-but-boxed Rippingtons, only rarely allowing for a lapse into the slicker turf like "Summer Lovers," with its tingly keyboard base.