What happens when four play?

Where: Clapham Grand, London
When: 10th November 2011
Who: Fourplay

“Smooth jazz”. Just what does that mean?

It’s one of those misnomers that was thrown about a lot in the 1990s and was mostly attached to the romantic soprano sax sound that was best exemplified by Kenny G. Now I’ve nothing against Mr Gorelick but I would hardly call the music he made jazz. What his commercial success did was to inspire a generation of sound-a-likes and more worryingly limit the major labels expectations about what they could release and increase their idea of what kind of financial return they would accept from a “jazz” release.

As record sales changed in the “download” era, it resulted in some of the major labels dumping their whole jazz roster in the early part of the new millennium and many jazz artists scurrying for new homes.

So “smooth jazz”,  whatever that was or is, resulted in a peak for “jazz” sales for a few years and then jazz music ending up in a more perilous situation than it has ever been. Put simply, today’s situation is that some reasonably well-known straight-ahead jazz artists can’t cover the cost of studio time if they are going to release their album on a small label with minimal distribution and few sales.

One of the bands that got caught up in the smooth jazz era – and some would say were responsible for it – were Fourplay. Originally made up of Bob James (keyboards), Harvey Mason (drums), Lee Ritenour (guitars) and Nathan East (bass), East’s habit of using his silky vocals to produce a wordless modern scat effect on all their recordings certainly lent them a smooth sound. However, unlike many other smooth jazz afficianados, their habit of fiery improvisations in live concert, great soloing and James’ conversion to grand piano at around the time the band was launched, gave them more of an edge than their contemporaries.

Nathan East

But what can certainly be levelled at Fourplay is their habit of delivering just what Warner Brothers wanted from their frequent visits to the studio. A couple of vocal tracks here and there (Phil Collins guested on one of their discs – on vocals, not drums -, Anita Baker, El Debarge on their debut covering a Marvin Gaye song, you get the idea) and a little cookie-cutter jazz with all those rough edges from their live shows ironed out.

If there was a formula here, it delivered only diminishing returns with the rest of the phenomenon. Lee Ritenour left to be replaced by Larry Carlton who gave them a slightly more blues edge. Warner Brothers milked it for what it was worth and then allowed them to walk to a succession of smaller labels.

And in 2011, I’m at the Clapham Grand in London to watch Fourplay. Their line-up now has Chuck Loeb who in turn has replaced Carlton on guitar and they have a new album “Let’s Touch the Sky” on Heads Up to promote, their 12th studio recording. And I’m determined to listen without the “smooth jazz” baggage running round my head and see how this thing stands up without the preconceptions that come with that tag.

Chuck Loeb

Well, the short answer is that Fourplay are primary exponents of an energetic but thoughtful contemporary jazz which learns from the traditions of the music and their many years of experience surrounded by the music we call jazz. Improvisation is at the heart of the show and the mastery of their instruments is paramount. There is a playfulness. Band leader-in-chief Bob James will create a riff on the piano which is then copied by East on bass, Loeb on guitar and even by Mason on the drums (no mean feat!). Solos expand to impress the audience but also to express the artistry of the individual within the band unit. There is little showboating for the sake of it but lots of imagination and creativity.

Harvey Mason

And that alleged “smooth”-ness? Well, it is there, there is nothing ragged about the performance. But as on the records so it is in the concert hall, it is Nathan East’s occasional vocals which lend themselves mostly to this charge. It can be seen on the signature tunes from their most successful self-titled debut album which also draw the loudest cheer from the London audience. But tracks like “Max-O-Man”,“ Chant” and “Bali”(the latter closes the main set, the former opened it) have much more to offer than those vocals – not least East’s accomplished bass playing. Only on a conventional ballad like “I’ll still be loving you” does it really risk becoming soporific. And again East is main culprit.

Mr Loeb who enters the stage looking not unlike some of the accountants who have left their city offices to catch the show, has much more to offer than his appearance suggests. Mr Mason is a tower of strength, rhythm and taste and subtlety on the kit – something you can’t say of all drum soloists even in the jazz world. But it is Mr James who is the real heart and soul of this band. On the band piece and James composition “Robobop” they are at the best and it is the James piece from his solo career “Westchester Lady” which really brings the house down.

Bob James

So smooth jazz is a label that has been thrown around too much and Fourplay are at their best when they are more than smooth – which is best captured in a live performance like this one but is only sporadically evident in their studio recordings……..


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