Fourplay may be the most stylish band in the jazz-fusion arena and their superb album, “Let’s Touch The Sky,” featuring the group’s new guitarist, Chuck Loeb, has the group firing on all cylinders.
It’s pretty well known that pianist Bob James formed the original band with guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason in 1990. Ritenour departed after their third chart topping album, and the band recruited bluesy guitarist Larry Carlton for an amazingly fertile 12-year period that found the group collaborating with BabyFace Edmonds, Michael McDonald and Esperanza Spalding while building a repertoire of state-of-the-art compositions. The announcement in April 2010 of Carlton’s resignation turned a potential crisis into an opportunity. Enter Loeb, a solid player with a style that fuses Ritenour’s lush exoticism with Carlton’s penchant for soul n’ twang riffs, and whose own melodic compositions (“Above And Beyond”) suggest a kinship with Pat Metheny. As it turns out, and I think to their surprise, the quartet is whole once again. “Let’s Touch The Sky” is among Fourplay’s finest hours and places the band at a creative high point. Each Fourplay album typically features a pair of contributions from each member and the quality among the 11 selections is equally shared, but James’ stirring title track, built around a haunting four-note motif and featuring brilliant interplay between the keyboardist and Loeb is worth noting as is Mason’s “Pineapple Getaway,” a jolt of pop perfection. An elegant and funky tribute by James to Hank Jones (“Gentle Giant”) segues into a slick aural travelogue (“A Night In Rio”) – both tunes shine from exemplary playing from East and drummer Mason. Bassist East often doubles as vocalist and scat singer – his original “I’ll Still Be Loving You” is exceptionally appealing, both for its melody and East’s tasty delivery. Fourplay excels at instrumentals but pairing the group with the right singer and material is always a threading the needle proposal. The band accomplishes that on a mighty rendition of “Love TKO” featuring Ruben Studdard – adding him to the mix is sheer inspiration but it’s the pairing of superstar Anita Baker with the band on a smoldering cover of “You’re My Thrill” that provides the album’s biggest “wow” moment.
“Let’s Touch The Sky” is a juggernaut of contemporary music that sets a sophisticated mood and creates a sonic environment that vibrates with vitality (i.e. East’s elastic solo over the shifting rhythm of “Golden Faders”). After 20 years and a dozen albums, Fourplay is still the leader. (11 tracks; 62:39 minutes) www.fourplayjazz.com
Labels: Anita Baker, Bob James, Chuck Loeb, Concord Records, Hank Jones, Harvey Mason, Heads Up, Nathan East, Ruben Studdard