In Concert at the Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA
April 11, 2010
It’s hard to believe that the contemporary jazz outfit, Fourplay, is about to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a band, a milestone that distinguishes them as one of the genre’s most enduring groups. Besides their longevity, what’s most striking about this musical brotherhood, comprised of keyboardist/leader Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and until recently the bluesy guitarist Larry Carlton, is their casual virtuosity and good natured riffing that puts more emphasis on creating a vibe than improvisation. Their sleek sound, dominated by precise funk, percussive R&B and soft Latin rhythms, has remained influential as have the musicians themselves. James is often noted as one of the architects of “smooth jazz” (and reputed to be the most sampled musician by rap artists) and there’s no denying his and Fourplay’s gift for punchy melodies and relaxed in-the-pocket compositions.
The band buzzed into the Keswick Theater and took the stage with the photogenic saxophonist Kirk Whalum, dressed in a sharkskin suit and fedora, who guest starred on tenor and soprano until Fourplay’s new guitarist, Chuck Loeb, joins the group later in the spring. A peek at their MySpace page reveals a “100% Sax Free” badge but the loosening of this rule allowed for a novel concert and Spinal Tap-like antics – the band freezes in position to punctuate the ending of “Blues Force,” a crowd-pleasing number with a breezy, danceable groove.
The set kicked off with a Marcus Miller tune, “Maputo,” (from the Bob James/David Sanborn hit album, “Double Vision”) that featured Whalum, a robust tenor player, blowing over a percolating groove powered by Mason’s surging kick drum and East’s heavy duty thumb slaps. The compact set list focused on the group’s early efforts like “Chant” that highlighted East’s billowy vocalese and “Max-O-Man,” a tune where Whalum carefully built his solo, his melodic stream of consciousness shifting from smooth scale runs to a controlled pitch defined by jagged honks and shouts. Pianist James was curiously low-key, content to comp behind his band mates while adding the occasional synthetic flourish. His best moment, a bristling extended solo on “101 Eastbound,” had a welcome sense of purpose that live situations encourage and audiences love.
A funky rendition of “Amazing Grace,” marked the concert’s center of gravity, and was led by an engaging Harvey Mason who artfully shifted tempos, slipping in quotes from “Poinciana” and such until James, East and Whalum led an eventual audience sing-along of “Amen.” With obvious enjoyment, the band settled into a perfect musical conversation with one another, unified as if Whalum had always been a part of Fourplay. In the end, it all came back to James who concluded the show with his classic “Westchester Lady” from his “Three” solo album. As the band traded solos on a four-way, single-note call and response, it was obvious that for a quartet who made their first recording in 1991, Fourplay has maintained their authenticity by doing things their way, essentially critic-proof and with a humbling appreciation for their enthusiastic fans. www.fourplayjazz.com
Photo by Sonny Abelardo; thanks, Sonny!
Labels: Bob James, Chuck Loeb, Concert, Fourplay, Harvey Mason, Kirk Whalum, Nathan East