Heading into their third decade of making multi-faceted recordings that perfectly blend pop accessibility, rhythmic R&B and colorful jazz improvisations, Fourplay in 2010 issued a challenge to their listeners on their second Heads Up date: Let’s Touch The Sky. This project marked the group’s first with Chuck Loeb, a veteran jazz guitarist whose resume includes everyone from Stan Getz and Steps Ahead to a two decade catalog of contemporary and traditional jazz solo recordings. Joining founding members Bob James (keyboards), Nathan East (bass/vocals) and Harvey Mason (drums/percussion), Loeb follows in the formidable footsteps of founding Fourplay guitarist Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, who toured and recorded with the group for 12 years. Six of the supergroup’s 12 recordings since 1991’s self titled debut have hit #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.
The title of their highly anticipated new album Esprit De Four reflects the continuing symmetry and expansive creativity that defines Fourplay with Loeb in the guitar chair. One of the highlights is the poignant “Put Our Hearts Together,” which James and his daughter Hilary James penned as a tribute to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The vocal is by superstar Japanese pop singer Seiko Matsuda.
JazzMonthly recently spoke with Loeb and Mason in separate interviews.
JazzMonthly: (to Chuck Loeb): The new album has a clever title Esprit De Four. Why is that a perfect title for the new album and how does it reflect the Fourplay aesthetic today?
Chuck Loeb: Basically it reflects how we were all feeling during the recording process and lately with the band in general—just the camaraderie that has developed. We’re hitting all the cylinders, thinking the same way. “Esprit de corps” is the motto of the armed forces and the title of the album started as a play on words that became a quip we kept saying in the studio. For us, it refers to the feeling we have on the road and when we are recording and promoting our albums, a feeling of togetherness that’s very special. This album was a more fulfilling experience for me because Let’s Touch The Sky happened within a few months of my joining, and I had almost no time to prepare. I was just getting my feet wet. Going into Esprit De Four, I had spent a lot of time on the road with these guys and feel more at ease and comfortable with my role in the band. I’m broken in now. Bob, Nathan and Harvey made me feel welcome and encouraged me to be myself from the start, and now I’m starting to feel like I’m doing that.
JazzMonthly: Tell me about how you came to join the group when Larry Carlton left. Had you worked with the others before? You’ve always had a very busy solo career, so how were you able to open enough time into your schedule to become a recording and touring member?
CL: I swear, it had nothing to do with me visiting Larry and threatening him (laughs). A few years before I joined, they thought Larry was going to have a conflict making one of their gigs and they called me to sub. I had been such a big fan of Larry and also Lee’s work in Fourplay so I was very flattered. Larry ultimately did that gig, but since Bob and I were longtime friends and had worked on a lot of projects together, I was the first guy they called when Larry decided to move on. When they called to schedule a conference call a few years ago to discuss me joining the band, it didn’t take me long to say yes. The timing was perfect because I was starting to record on my own indie label Tweety Records and wanted to pursue more traditional jazz in my solo work. Joining Fourplay allowed me to do that while still having an outlet to write and play contemporary jazz with one of the genre’s premier groups. It’s like having the best of both worlds, having the opportunity to do my own projects and also collaborate with three of the best musicians on the planet. I didn’t know Nathan and Harvey the way I knew Bob, but I had so much respect for them as artists and musicians. Everything clicked very quickly.
JazzMonthly: How do you feel you have lived up to the band’s expectations and those of the fans? What were some of your early challenges once you joined?
CL: There was no pressure from the other guys, but I put a lot on myself. I had so much respect for my predecessors and so I wanted to make sure I could measure up. It’s hard to generalize the fan response but I felt good reading emails and Facebook posts about me being the perfect choice. When I’d see the occasional disapproving note I would put it out of my mind. I can only do my best and bring what I have to the table. The guys made it clear that they didn’t want me to imitate Larry or Lee, but come in fresh with my own contributions. Despite that, I remember when I would be playing one of their classic tunes, I was thinking about how Lee or Larry might approach it. In recent years, Larry had that swing, groove and time, incredible expression and touch. It was my wife Carmen (Cuesta) who finally said, just be yourself, relax and have fun. Now I’m completely at ease. If anyone misses Larry and Lee, well, all I can say is, I miss them too. But I’m here making my own contribution.