Fourplay’s second Heads Up album Let’s Touch The Sky and Dave Koz’s Hello Tomorrow make a perfect pairing for the Standing Ovations review column this month for several reasons. Not only are both artists part of the Concord Records family after years on other label, but their careers completely parallel the modern era of contemporary jazz. Both made their debuts with hit albums twenty years ago and have been among the genre’s most successful and best-selling artists.
For fans who came to the party anytime later—perhaps over the past ten years, when Larry Carlton held the guitar chair—it’s good to refresh: The Fourplay story begins in 1990, with keyboardist Bob James, who had already established himself as a formidable figure in keyboard jazz – not just as an instrumentalist but as a composer and arranger as well – with solo recordings dating as far back as the mid 1960s. In 1990, James reunited with his old friend, session drummer, producer, composer & recording artist Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, Notorious Big), during the recording of James’ Grand Piano Canyon album. Also involved in the project were guitarist Lee Ritenour (Sergio Mendes) and bassist/vocalist Nathan East (Barry White, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins). The GPC sessions marked the genesis of the band that came to be known as Fourplay—and their 1991 debut included a blend of jazz, R&B and pop.
Now, heading into their third decade of making multi-faceted recordings blending poppy accessibility, rhythmic R&B and colorful “real jazz” improvisations, the all-star supergroup issues an exciting challenge to their listeners on their second Heads Up release Let’s Touch The Sky. Following in the formidable footsteps of Carlton and founding guitarist Lee Ritenour is cool new co-pilot Chuck Loeb, whose expansive acoustic and electric guitar resume includes everyone from Stan Getz to Steps Head and a lengthy solo catalog. Loeb’s fluid and melodic, deeply rhythmic instincts make a quick mark on his first two compositions recorded by the band.
The lively, syncopated funk jam “Third Degree” rolls on the guitarist’s percussive melody but also includes keyboardist Bob James’ fiery solos and lush harmony lines. “Above And Beyond” begins with an atmospheric, Methenyesque vibe before reminding us that Loeb is a master at intense yet infectious pop-jazz. Purists who may scoff at Fourplay’s popularity among smooth jazz enthusiasts will find deeper substance on James’ elegant, light swing tribute to his recently departed influence Hank Jones, “Gentle Giant,” whose wistful melody eases over bassist Nathan East’s laid back rhythms and drummer Harvey Mason’s hi-hat—and doubles nicely with Loeb’s Wes Montgomery flavored electric lines. Another probing jazz excursion is the moody, slowly evolving straight ahead quartet piece “Golden Faders,” James’ ode to longtime Fourplay engineer Ken Freeman. East’s vocals on his wistful ballad “I’ll Still Be Loving You” are engaging, but elsewhere Fourplay keeps its tradition of featuring incredible R&B singers going with Ruben Studdard caressing Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO” and Anita Baker tapping her inner Billie Holiday on “You’re My Thrill.”