“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.”
For more than 50 years, two-time Grammy Award-winning pianist Bob James has continued to blaze new trails in music, composing smash standards like “Angela (Theme from Taxi),” being one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop, and through his quarter-century association with the jazz supergroup Fourplay, whose members include Harvey Mason, Nathan East, and Chuck Loeb.
The year 2015 is an especially sweet one for James, with the release of Live at the Milliken Auditorium in March, followed by The New Cool (a collaboration with East) in September, and now Fourplay’s newest studio disc Silver, out this Friday (Nov. 20), which Soul Tracks calls “a welcome celebration of twenty-five years of excellence.” The band kicks off its American tour Dec. 1-6 with a special “Blue & Silver Holiday Celebration” at Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, followed by dates throughout 2016.
In this exclusive, expansive interview conducted in August, I spoke with James about every single cut on Silver, the joys of working with his partners in Fourplay that have kept the group vital for so long (a rarity in jazz), and everything else from concertos to coiffures.
I want to start off by congratulating you, Bob—you’ve released three new albums this year. How does it feel to still be knocking them out like that?
It feels wonderful, Justin. I’m just very excited to see them all come to fruition. When we start out with projects, we never really know what the timing is going to be, or how long it’s going to take to get them finished, but somehow or another, a lot things just seemed to coalesce and get finished at very similar times, so it’s a very intense period of musical time for me.
Of course, in addition to Fourplay’s new album we’re talking about Live at the Milliken Auditorium, released earlier this year, and The New Cool, your collaboration with Nathan East. Was that one inspired mostly by the work you did with David Sanborn on your last record together? It has that acoustic, loose kind of feel to it.
Yes, it was definitely influenced by that. Overall, I’ve been feeling the desire to focus a lot on the acoustic piano and to have my music be influenced by my piano playing. I’ve been identified a lot with electronic synthesizers and electric piano and Fender Rhodes, those other sounds, but my major love has always been the piano, and the nuances and all the different colors…there’s nothing like it. And having the opportunity to do that, and having it be encouraged by this project that was not completely coincidentally sponsored by Yamaha piano company gave me the chance to really stretch out and play piano.
I would like to think of it as pretty natural, and it was gradual, too, because we realized a couple of years ago that we were approaching this milestone, and we knew that an anniversary project would be related to it, so we all came at it from different angles and wanted it to be a celebration. I don’t think any of us limited ourselves in terms of the music itself; we approached the new, original compositions pretty much the way we always do—just try to come up with the best music that we can, thinking about the other members of the group, and what will inspire them. And as usual, the titles came toward then end, including the idea that we would actually call the album Silver. That didn’t happen until toward the end of the process, especially the idea of actually calling some of the songs related to the idea of the silver anniversary. So that was kind of a fun, creative addition, and the only really thematic thing that was on our minds from the beginning was the idea of maybe reaching back into our past and featuring some of the people who had been involved with Fourplay as guests, and as it turned out, our major thing was to invite Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton to come back and join us, which they happily agreed to do, and so we got them featured as well as inviting a very special guest, the first time ever having a saxophone player play on one of our records: Kirk Whalum.
Fourplay – Silver was produced by Fourplay with Executive Producers Mark Wexler and Sonny Abelardo and released on the Heads Up International label, a division of Concord Music Group. Fourplay is celebrating their 25th Anniversary [Silver Anniversary] with the release of Silver. A band with consistency of personnel and diversity in music has created another stellar release.
The release leads with the track Quicksilver, written by the newest member, Chuck Loeb, which echoes a Brazilian samba beat and is centered on the guitar work of Chuck Loeb and tight baseline of Nathan East and Harvey Mason. The track Horace, written by Bob James, is a tribute to one of Bob James’s favorite jazz pianists, Horace Silver. The moving melody is carried on the back of the keyboard work of Bob James and the ringing cymbals and slight drum skin strokes by Harvey Mason.
Bob James: You gotta love it! Here we are, Mike. Humbled by the math, but still thinking of adding some more arithmetic.
Nathan East: Hi Mike! It’s hard to believe 25 years since we started Fourplay but as they say “time flies when you’re having FUN!”
Chuck Loeb: Yes! Amazing…let’s do this!
MR: Cool. Before we get into the material on Silver, what are your thoughts about reaching that milestone?
BJ: Looking down at the roses beats pushing them up.
NE: When you embark on a career-defining journey with a gathering of musical-champions, in an exhilarating atmosphere like the vibrant music industry in 1990, it’s celebrated with the kind of energy that makes a milestone like this more likely.
CL: My situation in the band is unique, in the sense that I am the newest member of the band, and I’m just celebrating my fifth year as a member. This offers me some insight from a different perspective of the 25th anniversary. Back at the inception of the band I was a fan of all of the original members individually, and was just totally knocked out when I heard the collaboration on the original CD Fourplay. And so, I can offer my perspective as both an avid observer, and a member. I think the thing that contributes the most to the longevity of the band is the continual striving for excellence in all the facets of creating contemporary jazz: composition, improvisation, production, performance, and a strong connection with the listening audience. I know that the band hit those marks in the first 20 years, and it is my hope that they’ve continued to be met on the three CDs I have had the pleasure to have been involved with, including Silver.
Harvey Mason: From the outset of Fourplay, we insisted our project would not be a “one off” as we intended to follow the longevity model of the Modern Jazz Quartet, commonly known as the MJQ. The synergy was so very special why not continue making this great music. Twenty-five years is indeed a group milestone achieved by few, I’m proud and happy we’ve reached it. From my perspective it has certainly come quickly.
Jazz musicians, more than artists in any other genre (with the possible exception of classical music), have a transient existence. Go back and look at someone like my personal favorite jazz musician, Miles Davis, and realize that in five plus decades of making music, he was really the only constant in any of those great combos. There were plenty of comings and goings in those group. John Coltrane came and went, came back and then left again because, even as these legends played with Miles, they were also working their own projects.
That’s the way it is with jazz musicians to this day, and that probably explains why fans in that genre suffer none of the angst that fans in other genres feel when, say, a Lionel Richie leaves The Commodores to embark on a solo career. Besides, an in-demand jazz musician may front or be the side man in several bands while also getting some studio work along with arranging and composing.
Fourplay has experienced turnover since the band was formed in 1990, but the lineup has remained remarkably stable since their self-titled debut that featured El DeBarge singing “After the Dance” took the world by storm in 1991.
by George W. Harris •
The number of jazz bands that are commercially successful is pretty small; ones that are successful for 25 years could probably fit into a phone booth, if you could find one. Playing swinging yet accessible music since George Bush #1 was president, the team of Nathan West/b, Bob James/key, Harvey Mason/dr and the recent newcomer of 5 years hence Chuch Loeb/g deliver ten silver plated tunes in celebration of the anniversary.
“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.
“As usual Fourplay creates lightly funky and melodic groove music that is bluesy, danceable and quite accessible. Both James and Loeb take many fine solos but it is the sound of the ensembles that gives this group its own personality…Fourplay’s large audience will certainly find Silver enjoyable.”
“Fourplay celebrates its 25th anniversary with an inspired outing that includes former guitar members Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour as guests.”
“All of the songs have that great feeling of consistent quality and deep grooves that Fourplay and these high-profile guest artists bring to the studio. That sense of fellowship permeates Silver from start to finish and you can be assured that this recording is definitely one that is definitely ‘Sterling Silver.’”
“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.”
The Smooth Jazz Ride
“The album is a work of art…Sophisticated arrangements and ultrafine interplay are their most particular strength.”
“Longevity among jazz groups is a surprisingly rare commodity. With relatively few exceptions, a run of a few years, at most, is standard; for a collective of jazz musicians to stick together for a decade or more is almost unheard of. That puts Fourplay, who celebrates their 25th anniversary this year, in a league of their own.”
“Fourplay’s new 10-song CD, Silver (Concord Records) – recorded at Sunset Sound Studio in Hollywood where they cut their self titled debut in 1990 for Warner Bros. – marks the band’s 25th anniversary and is, fittingly, one of its finest, most consistent CDs in some time.”
Urban Music Scene
A truly silver event celebrating a quarter of a century of jazz excellence, each track’s title on supergroup Fourplay’s latest offering, Silver, has the word “silver” expressed or implied in each song title. A very clever approach for presenting such an actually 24-carat gold effort.
Of course, each of these stellar musicians has individually penned compositions for this gem, and the group invited former guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour and master saxman Kirk Whalum to offer their dazzling talents, as well. What else but brilliance could you expect from such a project? But then, those of you who know Fourplay (and who doesn’t?) know that they always wear brilliance like a second skin.