When discussing straight-ahead jazz, Miles Davis’ quintet (1965-1968) of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams comes to mind. If West Coast cool jazz becomes a matter of discourse, let’s talk Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Fast-forward to the 1970s, when smooth jazz sailed over the airways into bars and music halls, then we are talking about the pianist, arranger and composer Bob James.
In 1990, having already earned recognition as a marquee headliner and producer James joined forces with an elite group of musicians to form Fourplay, the only smooth jazz group worth discussing. Fourplay is a stellar group of musicians who became household names within the smooth jazz arena while playing in a variety of genre configurations. They are: the drummer Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand and Notorious BIG), the bassist-vocalist Nathan East (Barry White, Eric Clapton, Toto and Phil Collins) and guitarist Chuck Loeb for the last five years (Hubert Laws, Chico Hamilton, Stan Getz and Joe Farrell) following guitarist Lee Ritenour’s exit in the mid-1990s.
James is best known for his classics “Westchester Lady” (off the album “Three,” CBS Records) and “Angela,” the 1978 theme from the TV sitcom “Taxi.” Individually they are vibrant musicians who have influenced generations of young artists. Together as Fourplay they have turned the genre of smooth jazz into their own kettle of home-brewed gumbo whose spiced ingredients include pop, funk and jazz.
Their recent 25th anniversary celebration at the West Village’s Blue Note jazz club was an intensified fusion of improvisation. Such a term is rarely used to describe a smooth or contemporary jazz group, but these aren’t your regular type of smooth cats, this is Fourplay, the leaders of the pack.