The quartet’s latest release, Esprit De Four, continues the trend of exceptional musicianship and songwriting prowess that’s become a staple of the smooth jazz super group. There are amazing grooves and melodies in “Firefly,” “All I Wanna Do” and the beautiful “Put Our Hearts Together,” which was written as a tribute for the people of Japan following the devastating tsunami. Alongside Chuck Loeb (guitar), Bob James (keyboards) and Harvey Mason (drums), East shows why he’s one of the most in-demand bassists in music today.
East also is no stranger to music royalty. He’s performed alongside Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Barry White and Kenny Loggins, among many others. He was part of the Bad sessions with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, played for presidents and the Pope, performed at Live Aid, toured all over the world dozens of times and even co-wrote the No. 1 song “Easy Lover” with Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins. Not bad for a guy who started out playing cello in the orchestra.
I spoke with East about Esprit De Four as well as his early years and tenure with Slowhand. We also discuss an encounter with the divine and more in this exclusive interview. His life and journey in music is a story worth telling.
GUITAR WORLD: What makes smooth jazz such a great musical genre?
I always avoid trying to do too much labeling. Personally, when I create music, I’m not thinking about any specific genre. I just come up with something that’s a hybrid of the things that have influenced me. When I create, I try to bridge the gap between genres.
What inspires you to do a Fourplay project?
We enjoy each other’s company and try to come together every year and a half or so to make a record. Whenever we do come together, we always ask the question: “What’s our spark?” Fortunately, we don’t have to worry much because everyone comes in with at least a few songs and ideas rolling around in our heads.
On Esprit De Four, the song “Put Our Hearts Together” is very powerful.
That song was written for the people in Japan following the disaster and it really has touched a nerve over there. Chuck [Loeb] and I were actually saying that would have been another good title for the record. Although it’s called Esprit De Four, “Put Our Hearts Together” really describes the spirit that we have and also in trying to help our people who are in need.
My first instrument was actually a cello. I played that in the orchestra for three years before I discovered the bass. And once I did that, there was no turning back. It was the love of my life!
Who were some of your influences?
When I first started playing, I was all over the map. I was listening to The Beatles, Motown, Cream and Hendrix. Wes Montgomery was one of my biggest, earliest influences. After Wes, I discovered the music of Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and George Benson. When I started playing in bands, I was influenced by groups like Earth, Wind and Fire; Tower of Power; Chicago, Kool and The Gang; and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
What were some of your early gigs?
My first “big time” gig was with Barry White. He hired our entire band to go on tour with him. So, here I was, 16 years old, and playing at the Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, the Cobo Arena in Detroit and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and I thought: “You know what? This is IT!” [laughs]. From there, I met Hubert Laws, who invited me to come to the Philippines with him and I wound up also playing with him at the Hollywood Bowl. Then John McLaughlin called me, then Phil Collins, who called me in to record on Phillip Bailey’s record.
I remember we were in the studio in London and had pretty much finished the album. Phillip expressed to me that we still needed that one, undeniable single for the record label (CBS) to release. I went to the piano and started playing the basic changes to the song and in about 20 minutes we had the music written. We recorded what we considered a rough demo of the song that night and the next morning when we came back in to listen to it, we all loved the track!
Phil Collins came up with a working title “Choosy Lover.” He took the track home and came back with full lyrics to “Easy Lover.” Phil’s voice sounded so good as he sang the lyrics to us that we all had the same epiphany, this should be a duet with both Phils! They worked out their parts, went into the vocal booth, sang the song and the rest as they say is history. I also have to give credit to George Massenburg [engineer] and the brilliant guitar performance by Daryl Stuermer as well.
Tell me about your experience at the Live Aid event in 1985.
I was playing with Kenny Loggins at the time, and it was amazing to be a part of such an epic concert. Just looking out from the stage at an ocean of people filling the stadium was electrifying. It was also where Phil introduced me to Eric Clapton. Collins and Clapton were scheduled to perform directly after us so when we finished, they were standing on the side of the stage. As I walked off Eric said to me, “Sounded great, wanna go hang out later?” Not only did we hang out, but we wound up touring and making records together for the next 20 years!
How would you describe your time with Clapton?
It was the brotherhood. We’ve grown to be very dear, close friends over the years, and he truly is one of those artists who not only became a friend, but also a role model. He’s just very creative and passionate about every note he plays.
Not at the moment. I am juggling my schedule a bit now so that I can tour with Fourplay and Toto next year.
What are some of the things you treasure most about your days with Clapton?
Oh my, there are so many treasured experiences with EC! We played the Royal Albert Hall in London over 100 times; we’ve been all around the world numerous times and had a lot of laughs both on and off the stage. I remember playing with him in South Africa for 100,000 people. That sight was just amazing.
One of the most heartfelt moments was when we were with his grandmother Rose at her home in Ripley the day she made her transition from this life. She was so dear, like a grandmother to me as well. I’ll never forget just being there recalling all the good times we had together. Of course, theMTV Unplugged experience is something I will always treasure.
Out of that came the classic “Tears in Heaven” dedicated to his son Conor.
One moment where I feel like a little miracle took place was when we played Alpine Valley just outside of Chicago. We performed two nights there and traveled to and from the shows in four separate helicopters. On the second night, one of my friends (a fellow private pilot) offered to fly me back to Chicago in his airplane. I took him up on the offer and also invited Greg Phillinganes along for the ride. That left two seats available on our helicopter, and that’s when Stevie Ray Vaughan took one of those seats. The ill-fated chopper would never make it back to Chicago. It was such a tragic event and the darkest day of my life. It definitely felt like there was some major divine intervention going on my behalf, and I’m just thankful to be here having this conversation with you.
Toto has been touring in support of their bassist, Mike Porcaro, who has ALS, and I was asked to fill in for him. A portion of the tour revenue goes to help Mike and his family with medical expenses. Next year is the band’s 35th anniversary and they’re planning a pretty expansive world tour. I’ve also started an online School of Bass Guitar in partnership with ArtistWorks.com designed to teach students from all around the world. Recording-wise, I’ve been writing and producing new music for the forthcoming Anita Baker CD scheduled for release in January 2013. Other projects include the new Daft Punk CD, Steve Lukather’s solo record and work with David Foster on a new Andrea Bocelli album. But I’m most excited to announce that I have signed on with Yamaha Entertainment Group, a new label, to record my very first solo album. It’s finally going to happen! I really look forward to finally getting on the board as a solo artist … like my fellow bandmates!
Have you ever given thought to writing a book about your experiences?
Absolutely! That’s another thing in the works. Having such memorable experiences like George Harrison’s last tour, playing for the Pope and for three presidential inaugurations; there are a lot of fun stories I’d like to document and share with the world … and the grandkids whenever they come along!
What do you find most amazing about music?
You never know who is listening. We just got back from Nigeria and couldn’t believe how many people were aware of our music. You’re halfway around the world and it still amazes me to this day: the power of music and how it reaches people.
Chuck Loeb is more than just a guitarist. He’s the consummate musician.
In a career that spans four decades, he’s proven himself to be a versatile composer, arranger and producer in a wide range of musical styles. In 2010, Loeb joined the smooth jazz super-group, Fourplay, joining musical giants Nathan East (bass), Bob James (keyboards) and Harvey Mason (drums).
Fourplay’s latest release, Esprit De Four, continues the trend of beautiful arrangements and tasty licks that has made the quartet world renowned.
I spoke with Loeb about the new album and his creative process as well as what he thinks makes smooth jazz so appealing. He also gives advice on the best way to approach the instrument when it comes to improvisation.
GUITAR WORLD: What is it that makes smooth jazz so cool and different?
I think it’s because a lot of the musicians come from a combined world of music. For me, you hear the influences from my background growing up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin mixed in with my jazz life. I think that combination opens a lot of doors. People may not listen to pure, straight ahead jazz, but this kind of jazz is alluring to a much wider audience.
Two things that I think are quite important. As a collective group, we inspire and push each other in a lot of ways. This happens not only when we’re in the studio recording, but also when we go out on the road playing. Each of us brings something to the table which pushes us all to improve our own game. The other thing is, when we go out and play all over the world it’s inspiring to see how important the music is to the fans. The music really means something. So when it’s coming up for a recording project, we want to make something really special. For each other and for the band as a whole, and also knowing that it’s going into a very fertile, listening environment. That’s a great thing!
Where do you draw your inspiration for your songs?
One way is kind of a spontaneous combustion. I’ll be practicing or walking around or shopping and I’ll come up with something that I think is really good. I used to carry a little pencil and a piece of paper with me so I could scribble down my melodic ideas. But now a days, with the voice memo recorder on cell phones, I’ll hum it to myself or if I’m practicing, I’ll play the idea right into my phone so I won’t forget it. That’s what we call “inspiration.” The other way is when I know we’re doing another Fourplay CD, that inspires me as well. It makes me think about what would be a great piece for the four of us to collaborate on. From there, ideas starts to form.
Originally, I’m from a background of pop and rock music. I grew up in the ’60s; which was a fertile time for music. It seemed like every week, some seminal record was coming out. One week it would be the new Cream record, the next it would be Jimi Hendrix. Then it was The Beatles, the Stones or Bob Dylan. I couldn’t wait to go to the record store and see what was going on in the world.
When I was 16, I discovered jazz and I actually have a theory about this: I believe some people just have “jazz” inside of them. It may sound funny, but I think it’s true. I heard jazz and a light bulb went off; I immediately knew that’s what I had to pursue. For people who are drawn to that type of harmonic and melodic reference; it’s a no-brainer. From there, my influences became guys like Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino and John McLaughlin. The type of music that we do, where pop, rock and jazz are fused was perfect for me. For a guy who grew up listening to the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Motown and Stevie Wonder — it was made for me.
What’s one piece of advice you could give for a guitarist in any genre?
I like to view the instrument itself as kind of like a neighborhood or an area of a map. One where the strings would be the avenues and the frets would be the cross streets; sort of like a grid. My advice is to learn that map as thoroughly as you can. So that when you’re improvising, you can grab the notes wherever you find yourself in whatever “neighborhood” you happen to be in on that map. A lot of guitar players get locked into playing in just one area of the guitar. But if you can learn to play your favorite licks in five different areas and find yourself in a spot that you’re not familiar with, it will be that much easier to access the notes.
It’s very much based on groove. It’s cliché but if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing. That’s the primary element. Jazz started out as big band dance music so that swing is really important. You then look for how to apply the theory and harmony that you’ve studied as a jazz musician. So, you combine that heart swinging groove with a sophisticated harmonic palette. That’s what I look for and aim to achieve.
You’re the new kid on the block in this super-group. What’s do you find is the best part and the most challenging about it?
First of all, I’d like to say that the two guys who preceded me in the band are guitar heroes of mine: Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton. I’ve also been a big fan of the band since its inception. So it was a little bit daunting at first coming in to the shoes of guys I looked up to, respected and loved so much. On the other hand, it was also exciting because it was an opportunity for me to be myself. I was encouraged to come in and do my own thing and not try to imitate anyone. As I grew more comfortable, it became this exciting joy ride. I can make my impact on this great, established band with some of the best musicians on the planet. It’s a little bit like a dream come true.
Most recently the legendary jazz group had their first visit to “New Morning” in Paris, France.
While there, the group was delighted to have the lovely Lizzy Loeb open for them. Lizzy, of course is the daughter of Fourplay’s guitar virtuoso, Chuck Loeb.
They also performed at the Federal Palace Hotel while in Lagos, Nigeria.
Be sure to check the tour schedule for newly announced dates!
Fourplay is back with their release Esprit De Four, from a band that has continued to cast their magic on the Jazz world for more than two decades and twelve releases, it is crisp, progressive, funky at times, and always engaging.
Fourplay – Esprit De Four: December Dream; Firefly; Venus; Sonnymoon; Put Our Hearts Together (instrumental version); All I Wanna Do; Logic of Love; Esprit De Four; Sugoi; Put Our Hearts Together (vocal track)
Personnel: Bob James: Keyboards; Nathan East: Bass, Vocals; Chuck Loeb: Guitars; Synths; Harvey Mason: Drums, Percussion, Vibes, Synths; Seiko Matsuda: Vocals (track – 10)
Fourplay – Esprit De Four was produced by Fourplay and was released on the Heads Up label a division of Concord Music Group. For over two decades and on twelve releases, Fourplay continues to create energizing, leading edge, progressive music, and Esprit De Four is no exception. The release Esprit De Four contains contributions from all four members, each imparting their unique style writing and arranging tracks.
The release opens with the track, December Dream, from the newest member of Fourplay, guitarist Chuck Loeb. The arrangement is subtle and unpretentious, but it captures the listener’s attention and draws them into the flow of the music, with each member painting their own brush stroke to Chuck’s arrangement. Firefly, written by Nathan East, was inspired by the jazz trio Dirty Loops, who are good friends of Nathan. He wanted to deliver Dirty Loops’ style, energy, and their different chord progressions, and per Nathan, Fourplay delivered; a great track that moves at a snappy pace.
The track Venus, written by Harvey Mason, is mesmerizing and lures the listen into a seductive expression projected by Chuck Loeb’s guitar and Harvey’s tantalizing drum work. Sonnymoon, by Chuck Loeb, is dedicated to the band’s manger, Sonny Abelardo, and it is a poignant arrangement with a tender melody.
The band turns it up a notch with the instrumental version of Put Our Hearts Together, written by Bob James, which is stirring and powerful. The track is a tribute to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. As Bob James states “The people of Japan have been very supportive of my music for more than 30 years. When the tragedy struck, I was immediately motivated to do something.” He performed the song for the first time in Japan just six months after the tsunami. The release closes with the same track, but with the addition of Seiko Matsuda who lends her vocal prowess to the lyrics written by Bob James’ daughter, Hillary James.
All I Want To Do, by Nathan East, is a passionate and alluring track that calls out, “Now it’s me and you… Loving you is all I want to do.” The release closes with Logic of Love, by Chuck Loeb, the title track, Esprit De Four, by Harvey Mason, Sugoi, by Bob James, and Put Our Hearts Together, the vocal track.
All together, Esprit De Four is a dynamic release that shows the expressions of four masters of their instruments and masters of crossing genres to radiate a sound that is fresh, energizing, and progressive. In essence, this release is what you have come to expect from Fourplay.