Fourplay - Energy (2008)

Fourplay
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Fourplay has always operated at a step or two above what people expect to hear from a band labeled as contemporary jazz. As the quartet's latest CD Energy reveals, it's more accurate to call Fourplay a fusion band. What the listener gets with Fourplay is a brand of very listenable and accessible R&B and funk tunes in which the jazz elements of improvised solos and communication among the four musicians are always a key element in the mix.

Fourplay has always operated at a step or two above what people expect to hear from a band labeled as contemporary jazz. As the quartet's latest CD Energy reveals, it's more accurate to call Fourplay a fusion band. What the listener gets with Fourplay is a brand of very listenable and accessible R&B and funk tunes in which the jazz elements of improvised solos and communication among the four musicians are always a key element in the mix.

That should not be too surprising because each member of this quartet spent considerable time as leaders, sidemen and/or session musicians with a who's who from the jazz and pop worlds. Bob James is Fourplay's senior member having been on a factor in the music business for all or parts of five decades. Besides his work with Fourplay, James is best known for penning the theme to the television program "Taxi." What worked on that song - an intimate R&B influenced groove augmented by intense and creative solos - has been the staple of Fourplay's style from the ensemble's multi-platinum 1991 self-titled debut.

James' band mates, guitarist Larry Carlton, drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Nathan East all know the terrain of jazz, pop, R&B and funk. This comes across amply on tunes such as "Ultra Light," which features East laying down a funky bass line that contrasts nicely with James light touch swing on the keyboards. Throughout the song, Carlton engages in a conversation with James on the keys before launching into a solo. Mason, meanwhile, manages to do more than lay down a steady beat. Yet, his playing doesn't get in the way of his band mates. Instead, he gives them room to create.

Fourplay is basically an instrumental jazz band. However, they have frequently featured vocals on their recordings going back to El Debarge's steamy rendition of "After the Dance" on Fourplay's 1991 debut. Energy has two tunes that feature singing - "Cape Town" and "Prelude for Lovers" - and both are highlights.

It's always nice when someone is inspired to do something that makes the public view the person in a new light. East steps into the spotlight by providing the lead vocals on "Cape Town" - a song he co-wrote with his brother Marcel and cousin Alan Dones. Marcel's song Elijah and Nathan's twin children Sara and Noah provided background vocals. That's fitting because "Cape Town" tells the story of the missionary work that East's grandparents did in South Africa about 50 years ago. The song comes across as a labor of love - in a good way. East turns out to be more than up to the task of being a lead singer, and the band seems to feed off of East's inspiration on this tune.

Bass player, and vocalist Esperanza Spalding sings on "Prelude for Lovers," a sensual jam that is destined for radio play on adult contemporary and smooth jazz stations. The changes in tempo - including the two vocal tracks - ensure that Energy never allows its groove to sink into a rut. The thing about a lot of so-called smooth jazz records is that they are content to be background music. Energy is the type of record that will find a way to be included in the conversation. Eventually, guests at your dinner party will ask, "who is that playing on your stereo." Recommended

Howard Dukes

 
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