With the release of Energy, Fourplay’s debut album for Heads Up and eleventh studio release overall, the contemporary jazz supergroup celebrates 17 years as a force in instrumental music and the decade anniversary of Larry Carlton, who replaced original guitarist Lee Ritenour in 1998. They’ve enjoyed consistent artistic, critical and commercial success by blending virtuoso jazz playing with elements of R&B, pop and even, on occasion as on Energy, exotic world music sounds. Over the course of those recordings—seven of which have now hit #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, Fourplay has continued to mine the magical combination of innovative jazz explorations and in the pocket, grooving pop that has appealed to a broad crossover mainstream audience.
A little history, for those who know the name and players but not how they first joined forces: The Fourplay story begins in 1990 with keyboardist Bob James, who had already established himself as a formidable force as a recording artist, composer (“Theme From Taxi”) and arranger with credits dating back to the mid-60s. That year, James reunited with his old friend, session drummer Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, Sergio Mendes, James Brown), 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 Grand Piano Canyon sessions marked the genesis of the group that eventually came to be known as Fourplay.
Celebrating 18 years since their self-titled debut captured the instrumental world by storm, sold over a million copies and stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart for 33 weeks, Fourplay brings a ton of exciting history to the Concord Music Group family and Heads Up. As evidence of their vast crossover groove appeal, they have consistently scored on the R&B/Hip-Hop album charts as well; their first two discs, Fourplay and Between The Sheets were Top 20 hits. When they received a Congressional Record from Congress in 2007—the House of Representatives recognized them as distinguished members of the music industry--they became the only group in history to be so recognized.
The Energy flows anew with a coolly soulful mix of R&B, pop and African flavors atop their jazz foundations. The catchy, easy flowing opener “Fortune Teller” is the track catching fire at smooth jazz radio, but deeper in are truer artistic treasures like the inspirational world music anthem “Cape Town,” which features East’s dreamy vocals and chronicles the journey of East family members traveling to South Africa two generations ago to do missionary work. Similarly exotic and seductive are “Argentina” and the hypnotic Carlton-driven “Comfort Zone.” Another can’t miss tune is the romantic “Prelude For Lovers,” a co-write by James’ daughter Hilary and her husband Kevin DiSimone that features the soothing vocals of young breakout labelmate singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding. Along the way, there’s the laid back soulful cool of “The Whistler”; the shuffling mid-tempo funk gem “Ultralight”; the dramatic fusion of “Look Both Ways” (which allows open spaces where James and Carlton dig deep into their own artistry while conversing); and the dreamy hypnotic closer “Sebastian,” which James began with a chord progression from a Bach piece. This rare glimpse into each member’s classical backgrounds is one of Energy’s more unexpected highlights.
If there’s such a thing as a sure bet in contemporary jazz these past two decades, it’s the latest Fourplay recording, and they keep the Energy flowing powerfully (though with subtlety at times) into the future on their latest.