It says a lot about a band’s creative uniqueness when the hybrid style of music they play defies easy genre categorization the way the melodies and grooves of Four80East do. In the late 90s, when veteran Toronto based remixers Tony Grace and Rob DeBoer (collectively known on their pop projects as Boomtang) recorded their first loose, improvisational jazz/dance project The Album, it fit perfectly into the then-flourishing acid jazz movement. When the duo—whose instrumental side projects were billed under the moniker Four80East—recorded Nocturnal (2001) and Round 3 (2002) for Higher Octave, the chill music phenomenon was taking off, so it seemed appropriate to put their music in that pocket. As their albums became more popular, a few new expressions were coined, “trip-jazz” and “Nu Jazz.” DeBoer responds to all those attempts to pigeonhole the Four80East vibe by saying, “the beauty of what we do is that the boundaries we’ve established are fairly broad. With each song, we only need to answer the question, ‘Does it sound like a Four80East song?’”
The ongoing flow of seductive and often thumping rhythms, trippy and unexpected sound effects and jangling electric guitar and piano riffs on the duo’s Native Language debut makes En Route the perfect title for the collection. The overall feeling of the 11 tracks is cool, ambient and downtempo, with one bright exception that smooth jazz fans in Canada have already made a success: “Noodle Soup,” which rolls like hypnotic, easy grooving jazzy disco for people way too young and cool to still have their platform shoes. On this track, which is up this month for Best Original Song at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, the duo’s old school soul and jazz influences are front and center with DeBoer’s crisp electric guitar and dancing piano chords and riffs jumping playfully over Grace’s hypnotic beats.
Beyond that, En Route rolls like a classic chill out collection with a lot of cool influences beyond the typical urban sounds that define smooth jazz today. “Five By Five” swirls spacey mystical effects, crunchy electronica and a simmering blues keyboard flavor. “The Drop” lives up to its name, heading into hypnotic darkness with bursts of avant garde, distorted electric guitar. “Double Down” textures an insistent, ringing high hat jazz fusion groove with dark toned guitar and organ riffs, and includes a smoky tenor solo by Jon Stewart; Stewart also adds a radio friendly melodic solo to the easy grooving, mostly guitar driven and traditionally urban flavored “Been Too Long.”
En Route’s next stop is the cool and sexy “Closer,” which mixes trippy effects with a passionate sax melody and the dreamy “hey hey” vocals of Divine Brown. The bounce picks up big time on the next two tracks, the densely percussive, fun spirited jazz jam title track and the punchy, funky electronica piece “51 Division” (which combines cool guitar and sax jazz licks with “out there” scratchy touches). Chris Botti fans will connect well with the next downtempo tune, the moody “Don’t Look Back” (featuring the trumpet of Bryden Baird) while “Easy Come, Easy Go” is a haunting electronic soundscape (with touches of piano and guitar) that keeps the soothing relaxation vibe going. Four80East wraps En Route with the soulful, laid back and hypnotic electro-jazz (with equal doses of jazzy piano and odd synth effects) of “Waterline.”
Because Grace and DeBoer have lucrative day jobs as award winning remixers and producers, Four80East is more or less an important creative outlet they get to when they have time. Projects like the irresistible and multi-faceted En Route will make longtime fans and new listeners alike hope that there are more lulls in their regular schedule in the years to come. Their vibe is just too cool and essential to wait five years for between recordings.
- Jonathan Widran