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.
Talking about Fourplay’s silver anniversary from the stage of New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club on Dec. 1, the formidable bassist Nathan East related his wife’s reaction to the group’s milestone. “I don’t know—25 years of Fourplay? Isn’t it time to get down to … ?” East didn’t need to finish the sentence for the capacity crowd to start giggling.
The slightly risqué name, however, has always had more to do with the playful nature of the all-star instrumental jazz/pop quartet (Bob James on keyboards, East on bass, Chuck Loeb on guitar and Harvey Mason on drums), which delights in tossing melodic and rhythmic ideas around the bandstand like the Harlem Globetrotters moving up the basketball court. That kind of synergy only gets better with age.
As longtime fans of the Jazz supergroup Fourplay, we had the ultimate pleasure of attending the first show of their 6-night gig at the acclaimed Jazz club, the Blue Note New York located in the heart of Greenwich Village on December 1, 2015. Although we were well familiar with their style and talent seeing and hearing this multi-talented band perform live made for a remarkable evening that will go down as one to remember in our musical memory banks.
The contemporary jazz group Fourplay, made up of four legendary jazz musicians in their own right, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the aptly titled album Silver, which was released on November 20.
Harvey Mason, the quartet’s drummer and one of the founders of the group, said that the band members’ experiences playing with a variety of artists before coming to Fourplay contributes to their staying power as a group.
“We learned when to support and when to step back or step out and support and to work hard on projects and I think that is a big part of it,” Mason said. “We’re all team players, so to speak, and we’re able to support and know when to give and take….Each guy is a very smart guy, I think that’s a big part of it.”
The group’s pianist, Bob James, said that the group operates as a “democracy,” and said there’s “a strong desire to have all of us represented equally.”
The New York Times
“The major takeaway from Silver is simply this. Fourplay is not Bob James and his backup band or the Harvey Mason Quartet or the Nathan East Group or the Chuck Loeb Crew. Fourplay is, and has always been a band, and one of the most enduring, accomplished and greatest bands in jazz. Silver is as much a proud statement of resilience as it a triumphant celebration of achievement.’ ****1/2
All About Jazz
“Every Fourplay member, whether current or an alum, has played a role in elevating the contemporary jazz game and popular music in general, and on Silver these jazz legends once again show that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is a welcome celebration of twenty-five years of excellence.” Recommended.
“Silver is jam-packed with sophistication, mastery, melody, and musical majesty…Never disappointing and always more than entertaining (in fact, therapeutic), this iconic band will always stand at the very pinnacle of jazz with few equals.”
IN EVERY SPORT, THERE ARE PLAYERS THAT, WHILE YOU MAY NOT EVER REALLY NOTICE THEM, THEY ALWAYS SEEM TO BE ON THE WINNING AND CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM. YOGI BERRA WAS ONE OF THOSE GUYS, MAGIC JOHNSON ANOTHER. THEY ONLY KNOW HOW TO SUCCEED.
BOB JAMES IS ONE OF THOSE TYPES OF GUYS. HE’S BEEN ON COUNTLESS SESSIONS THAT HAVE BEEN BEST SELLERS. HE WAS THE KEYBOARDIST IN RESIDENCE FOR THE CLASSIC CTI ALBUMS IN THE 70S THAT SET THE STANDARD FOR JAZ Z RECORDINGS. HIS WORK WITH GROVER WASHINGTON JR MADE JAZZ A HOUSEHOLD NAME. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME THAT HAPPENED?!?
BESIDES ALL OF THAT, HIS BAND FOURPLAY HAS BEEN A PERENNIALLY… Continue Reading Here at Jazz Weekly…
“Silver” commemorates Fourplay’s 25th anniversary by adhering to form. It’s a sleek but relaxed album that highlights the band’s strengths as a rhythm section. So a track like “Sterling” involves a billowing pulse and an aerated melody, while “Aniversario,” by Mr. East, deftly flirts with Brazilian funk. “Quicksilver,” by Chuck Loeb, the group’s current guitarist, features a springy melodic hook over a four-on-the-floor beat.
Beyond the on-the-nose song titles, the album acknowledges band history by way of inclusion: Mr. Ritenour resurfaces on one track, and his initial successor, Larry Carlton, appears on a lite-funk tune called “Silverado.”
Any band in any genre of music, be it rock, country, classical or jazz can’t make it two and a half decades based solely on pure dumb luck. Fourplay defied the critics who dismissed them as pop schlock when they debuted in 1991 and shook off the haters who never thought they would still be here 25 years later. The secret for the quartet’s staying power is right there in the name: Fourplay. Four talented, versatile and experienced master musicians playing together. Nobody is the frontman and nobody is first among equals.
When Fourplay dropped their eponymous debut, one reviewer described it as “between jazz, R&B, and pop with an emphasis on lightweight originals, soulful and moderately funky rhythms, and predictable radio-friendly music.” Not exactly a critical endorsement.
Though dissed and dismissed by the cognoscenti, no band lasts 25 years on slick sounds and dumb luck alone. Fourplay not only endures, but thrives as being a group people love to listen to even if critics hate to. Beyond the commercial success, the band’s longevity is in no small part because they are a band. Lee Ritenour, East and Mason all were part of James’ band for Grand Piano Canyon (Warner Bros, 1990) and from those sessions a superband was born. The fact they are still here when bands have largely vanished from jazz is a credit to their ability to sublimate the individual ego for the collective good of the group as well as the groove.
Let’s talk about “super groups.”