Fourplay @ 25: A Silver Lining Playbook

Fourplay (James, East, Loeb, Mason) as they are…

Any band in any genre of music, be it rock, country, classical or jazz can’t make it two and a half decades based solely on pure dumb luck. Fourplay defied the critics who dismissed them as pop schlock when they debuted in 1991 and shook off the haters who never thought they would still be here 25 years later. The secret for the quartet’s staying power is right there in the name: Fourplay. Four talented, versatile and experienced master musicians playing together. Nobody is the front man and nobody is first among equals.

When Fourplay dropped their eponymous debut, one reviewer described it as “between jazz, R&B, and pop with an emphasis on lightweight originals, soulful and moderately funky rhythms, and predictable radio-friendly music.” Not exactly a critical endorsement.

Though dissed and dismissed by the cognoscenti, no band lasts 25 years on slick sounds and dumb luck alone. Fourplay not only endures, but thrives as being a group people love to listen to even if critics hate to. Beyond the commercial success, the band’s longevity is in no small part because they are a band. Lee Ritenour, East and Mason all were part of James’ band for Grand Piano Canyon (Warner Bros, 1990) and from those sessions a superband was born. The fact they are still here when bands have largely vanished from jazz is a credit to their ability to sublimate the individual ego for the collective good of the group as well as the groove.

Fourplay: Silver
Let’s talk about “super groups.” In rock n’ roll, established acts team up in a group all the time and watch the money roll in, but most of these pairings are merely cynical cash grabs for the short term. Jazz has always seen collaborations, but most of these super groups barely last beyond a few albums before calling it a day.One of the biggest problems in jazz today is there are too many solo acts and not enough bands. There are things a musician can only learn in a band and one of them not every idea is always a good idea. In a band there’s someone there to say, “Nah…don’t like that one. Let’s try something else” and that idea which was all wrong for a band might be perfect for a solo record.No relationship—musical or otherwise—lasts two-and-a-half decades without disagreements, conflicts and personality clashes. Fourplay has kept whatever internal dramas are going on in-house and out of the press. Ritenour exits and Larry Carlton enters with no drop-off. Carlton leaves and is replaced by Loeb and all three guitarists are back in the fold for Silver and some two-plus decades later that’s it for the personnel changes.Quiet as its kept, Loeb has somewhat supplanted James as the principal instrumentalist. No knock on James. He’s still killin’ it on the keyboards, but Loeb is leading from the front whether its his subtle stylings on “Horace” (as in Horace Silver—get it?) or flat out rocking out on “Silverado” duking it out with Carlton as they swap guitar licks. Ritenour lays back a bit more on “Windmill,” but its good to hear him back in the fold for the first time since 1994.

Don’t sleep on James though because while he turns 76 in December and contributes only two of the ten tracks, they’re two of the strongest with the aforementioned “Horace” and the lush and gorgeous “Mine.” James is still the major domo of Fourplay, but he has gracefully shared the throne with his “younger” bandmates, Mason, East and Loeb.

The the major takeaway from Silver is simply this. Fourplay is not Bob James and his backup band or the Harvey Mason Quartet or the Nathan East Group or the Chuck Loeb Crew. Fourplay is, and has always been a band, and one of the most enduring, accomplished and greatest bands in jazz. Silver is as much a proud statement of resilience as it a triumphant celebration of achievement.

Track Listing: Quicksilver; Horace; Sterling; Silver Lining; Silverado; Mine; Silver Streak; Precious Metal; Aniversario; Windmill

Personnel: Bob James: piano, Rhodes, synths; Nathan East: bass, vocals; Chuck Loeb: acoustic and electric guitars, synths; Harvey Mason: drums, percussion,vibes, synths; Larry Carlton: guitar (5); Lee Ritenour: guitars (10); Kirk Whalum: tenor sax (8); Chris Wells: background vocals (7); John Beasley: additional keyboards (10); Mitch Forman: organ (3); Tom Keane: synths (9)

Record Label: Heads Up International

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz

…and Fourplay as they were (James, Ritenour, East, Mason).

Keiko Matsui Live: Our Woman From Tokyo


Most of the time releasing a live album is a good way to mark time between trips to the studio as they are quick and easy cash grabs where a musician sells the fans a cheap ticket to a show they weren’t at. The Rolling Stones are masters of this slick tactic with no less than a dozen official live albums in their discography.

The fatal flaw with live albums is they are audio representations of a visual performance. This is a flaw resolved by Keiko Matsui as she goes all-in on Live in Tokyo, a CD and DVD document of her two-year tour in support of Soul Quest (Shanachie, 2013).

Live In Tokyo leans hard on Soul Quest (Shanachie, 2013), with seven of the 13 tracks coming from that album where Matsui fully embraced her smooth jazz following. The Keiko Matsui Sound formerly represented an East-meets-West hybrid of classical, New Age and jazz with a Japanese flourish provided by ex-husband Kazu Matsui’s shakahuchi. That part of sound vanished eight years ago after they divorced. A different sort of soul quest began which took Keiko Matsui to Africa and that lid a creative spark in the brilliantly underrated Moyo (Shout Factory, 2007)

keiko matsui

Since then, Matsui has released two albums of new material and now a live CD/DVD. Now live jazz albums rarely rise to the raucous level of Frampton Comes Alive!, but this audience is so quiet and polite you may forget it is is a live album. That’s okay, because this is still a great showcase for Matsui as not only a superb pianist, composer and arranger, but as a bandleader.

On stage Soul Quest gets a shot of energy played live that was missing in the studio which suffered a bit too much from overproduction. Stripped down to a hot five-piece band, Matsui is welcomes special guests Kirk Whalum and Chuck Loeb who both played on Soul Quest,as they faithfully reproduce the album. Taking it to the stage was a smart move by Matsui and Shanachie Records which deserves kudos because some labels would not show this level of support for even the most established artist.

The DVD not only is a visual document of the Tokyo concert, it is evidence of her status as a global ambassador and humanitarian which took Matsui from the Ukraine to Russia, Greece, Peru and other parts of the globe. It was 26 years ago when Matsui released her third album entitled No Borders. Now it’s an established fact. There are no borders for Matsui and Live In Tokyo is a four-star finish to the latest chapter in Matsui’s musical journey and a bridge to her next destination.

Track Listing: Dream Seeker‭; ‬Black Lion‭; ‬Forever Forever‭; ‬Caricias‭; ‬Proof‭; ‬Affirmation‭; ‬Soul Quest‭; ‬Safari‭; ‬Stingo‭; ‬Bridge Over the Stars‭; ‬Antarcia–A Call To Action‭; ‬A Night With Cha Cha‭; ‬Deep Blue (DVD has same track listing except “Deep Blue”).

Personnel: Keiko Matsui:‭ ‬piano,‭ ‬keyboards‭; ‬vocals‭; ‬Dave Karasony:‭ ‬drums‭; ‬Rico Belled:‭ ‬bass‭; ‬J.P.‭ ‬Mourao:‭ ‬guitar‭; ‬Tom Braxton:‭ ‬saxophone‭; ‬Chuck Loeb:‭ ‬guitar‭; ‬Kirk Whalum:‭ ‬saxophone

Record Label: Shanachie Records

This review originally appeared in All About Jazz

Fourplay Begins Their Third Decade With “Esprit De Four”

You guys look relaxed, but what the hell does Harvey have on his feet?

Esprit De Four
Heads Up International

Bands don’t last over two decades with minimal turnover in personnel and continued success if they’re composed of egotists, prima donnas, drama queens or people that just don’t play nice together. Fourplay has endured and thrived because it is an egalitarian coalition of seasoned professionals who set aside private agendas to serve the group dynamic.

When a new guitarist joins Fourplay it typically takes their sophomore recording with the long-running band before they truly begin to find their footing in the group. In over 20 years there have been only three personnel changes, with original guitarist Lee Ritenour being replaced by Larry Carlton, who manned the spot for 12 years and seven albums, until he exited and Chuck Loeb became the “new guy” on Let’s Touch the Sky (Heads Up, 2010).

Stability has been a strength for this assemblage of veteran musicians even if consistency has led the band to be dismissed by critics little more than slick, smooth jazz. That was truer before than it is now as the Fourplay of 2012 bears little resemblance to the 1991 version despite three-quarters of the lineup being still composed of founders Bob James, Nathan East and Harvey Mason.

James’ keyboards are still at the heart of the group, but whoever the guitarist is gives it much of its soul, and on Esprit De Four a lion’s share of the direction as well. Loeb is predominantly featured on the first four tracks and guides the group into making music that is too passionate to be “slick.” Even when East takes his standard vocal turn on “All I Wanna Do,” Loeb’s guitar is front and center leading the way.

This hardly means the rest of the band recedes into the background. Mason’s “Venus” is lush and lovely with James and Loeb gently trading leads before smoothly dueting to the close. “Sonnymoon” is the closest these old pros come to sounding like “classic” Fourplay, as the Mason and East rhythm section keeps things fast and funky. It’s just an excuse for four minutes of jamming, but let no one think Fourplay can’t still get down when it wants to.

If Loeb steps up to assert himself as primary soloist, James, who will turn 73 in December 2012, seems willing to relinquish some of the spotlight to Loeb, or at least doesn’t seem the least stressed out sharing it. James has a deep fondness for Eastern culture and his two contributions, “Sugoi” and “Put Our Hearts Together,” are evidence of that influence. “Put Our Hearts Together” (in both an instrumental and vocal version) is dedicated to the people of Japan in the wake of 2011’s horrific earthquake and tsunami. Esprit De Four eschews the Fourplay formula of American chart-topping guest vocalists such as Anita Baker or Michael McDonald in favor of a demonstration of cross-cultural outreach, as Japanese superstar Seiko Matsuda to provides the vocals for “Put Our Hearts Together.”

The charge most frequently levied at Fourplay by its detractors is that the music is safe and formulaic. While it would be an untruth to say this is the most freewheeling quartet in jazz, it’s petty to confuse popularity and acclaim with shallowness and superficiality. Fourplay cares too deeply about its music to ever become just another cynical superstar band conceived as nohting more than a cash grab.

Tracks: December Dream; Firefly; Venus; Sonnymoon; Put Our Hearts Together (instrumental); All I Wanna Do; Logic of Love; Esprit De Four; Sugoi; Put Our Hearts Together (vocal).

Personnel: Bob James: keyboards; Nathan East: bass, vocals; Chuck Loeb: guitars, synths; Harvey Mason: drums, percussion, vibes, synths; Seiko Matsuda: vocals (10); Lizzy Loeb: additional vocals (1); Kenny Mason and the Voices of Praise Choir

This review originally appeared at All About