The twelfth studio album from the mighty Fourplay, and the second record to feature ‘new boy’ Chuck Loeb, is an exciting prospect. Even moreso because I only recently became aware of its impending release. Shall we get straight to the music FFF’s (Fellow Fourplay Fans)?
Unlike the opening to many contemporary jazz outings ‘Esprit de Four’ begins on a mellow note – and I love it. ‘December Dream’ has a bassline that starts out as hardly discernible and Harvey Mason teases us with the lightest cymbal touches to keep time. It’s written in waltz time and the piano and guitar have an almost classical flavour, especially during the introduction. I know I don’t use the word ‘counterpoint’ often in my reviews, but here it is in all its beauty. A very elegant tune which builds in intensity throughout almost eight minutes. I always feel there needs to be at least track on a good contemporary jazz record that you can hum or sing and ‘Firefly’ is one such. The rhythm flies and this has the Fourplay trademarks that have kept them at the top as an ensemble for twenty years: Nate East’s whispered falsetto vocals and ever-tasteful funky bass, Harvey Mason’s crisp snare, Bob James warm keyboard textures and a truly gifted jazz guitarist – in this case the fabulous Mr Loeb. Of course, topping off these other delights is the unifying factor: melody. And it’s this that keeps me singing/humming Fourplay songs. This one won’t leave me alone and the fact that Nate East delivers one of the best solos I’ve heard him play just adds to the appeal. This is my favourite track from the album.
‘Venus’ calms us down with the sound of an acoustic bass, piano and guitar with a string synth as backing. The brushes on the cymbals keep your head nodding gently as this lovely ballad unfolds. I love Chuck Loeb’s playing. He can play it crazy, as he does on some Metro releases, or like a lullaby as here. He gets a sound that Earl Klugh’s fans (such as I) will love. ‘Sonnymoon’ is the first track I played on my internet radio station because it really is an attention-grabber. Another flying rhythm (one day I’ll properly explain what I mean by that, but listen to this song for a darn good example) and bass, guitar and keyboard lines that keep moving but leave just enough space – another Fourplay trademark. Bob James Rhodes solo has a very organic sound – more of this Bob please!
Many musicians who have toured and built a following in Japan have expressed shock and sadness after the devastation caused by the tsunami in Japan in 2011 and the members of Fourplay are no exception. ‘Put our Hearts Together’ is dedicated to those affected and expresses that sadness. For all that, it’s not a sad song – it has lots of optimism and is a true jazz tune. The drumming is light and tight, that acoustic bass sound is sinewy and delicious and James and Loeb chase around with some lovely lines. Nathan East appears on lead vocals on the beautiful, bluesy ‘All I Wanna Do’ – and Mr E should be in front of a microphone more often because this works really well. Loeb sprinkles just enough blues dust around but this is about that fabulous vocal. Love it!
The opening bars of the dainty ‘Logic of Love’ stamp this as classic Fourplay, a song that could only have come from this thoroughbred stable and could have come from any of their CD’s to date. Everything is right, from the keyboard that sounds like someone whistling, to East’s fretless perfection to Loeb sounding just like Ritenour on those early outings. Loeb really is a musical chameleon and it’s this, as much as his outright technique, that makes me love his playing more the longer I listen… Bob James is a soulful player and he demonstrates it in his acoustic piano solo here as well as anything I’ve heard him do. Ah, bliss. The title track has a nice bounce to it, some nice ‘swampy’ sound effects and Loeb in Klugh mode. The chorus has almost a gospel feel to it and everywhere there is a touch of the cinematic that seems to come easily to all four of these players, but especially to them as an ensemble. These comments carry even more weight as the intensity builds at the end.
I’ve already referred to the effect of the Japanese tsunami on Fourplay’s members and there are certainly oriental influences at work in the lovely ‘Sugoi’. It’s surprising how easy it is to get lost in a song that’s less than five minutes long and moves slowly and deliberately, but it happens consistently with this song. The true meaning of ‘Put our Hearts Together’ is revealed in the closing, vocal version. The lead vocal is provided by Japanese pop star Seiko Matsuda and though eastern vocals, for me, don’t necessary always work well in western musical settings, the fragility of the sound adds to the pathos and on balance I think it’s a worthwhile addition to the album.
If you’re a FFF, you will have an expectation from a new release. If you expect strong compositions, masterful playing and flawless production, let me tell you, you won’t be disappointed. But that’s not everything you get from this band: you get the combined experience of four players who can, and do, play anything. They choose to deliver here a blend of improvisation and melody, a musical caress, soul music of a subtle and distinctive kind that only comes from the band we know, and have known for two decades, as Fourplay.