Longevity among jazz groups is a surprisingly rare commodity. With relatively few exceptions, a run of a few years, at most, is standard; for a collective of jazz musicians to stick together for a decade or more is almost unheard of. That puts Fourplay, who celebrates their 25th anniversary this year, in a league of their own. Since 1990, bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Chuck Loeb (who joined five years ago) and drummer Harvey Mason have continued to explore together, their efforts resulting in what All Music Guide called one of “the most intuitive, forward-thinking and focused groups in modern jazz.”
On Silver, set for release November 20, 2015 on Heads Up, a division of Concord Music Group, Fourplay celebrates that unprecedented bond with their most wide-ranging and gratifying recording to date. Following the theme of the occasion, most of the 10 new original compositions comprising Silver play off of the anniversary, bearing titles such as “Sterling,” “Precious Metal” and “A Silver Lining.” Just like its namesake, Silver shines, each track a brilliant example of what has made this formidable ensemble—each of whom also has a highly successful career outside of the band—one of the most respected in the jazz world.
For each member of Fourplay, the group’s ability to remain so creative after so many years together has been a reward in itself. Says Nathan East, “It became apparent from our very first album that this particular group of musicians had a special sound. We appreciate whatever that chemistry or magic has been between us and have had a great time on our journey together as we’ve developed our music.”
“Fourplay is four voices melding together to create a truly distinct and recognizable sound,” says Harvey Mason, explaining the quartet’s ability to continually find new avenues of expression. “This group has so much musical experience that the accompanying and the listening are over the top. We’ve all been sidemen as well as leaders and we cover the gamut of musical genres. It’s a great feeling to know you can go in any direction and you’ll be supported and pushed. We work together—that is what you hear when you listen to Fourplay.”
That sense of fellowship permeates Silver, from the first notes of the opening track, “Quicksilver,” a Chuck Loeb piece that both spotlights the guitarist’s fluid lines and his bandmates’ innate capacity for locking into a groove and building something indelible and substantial along the way. It’s followed by “Horace,” whose title might seem out of place on the recording until composer Bob James explains that it’s his tribute to one of his favorite jazz pianists, the late Horace Silver!
“Sterling” is next, co-written by Nathan East and Chuck Loeb. A brief opening piano statement from Bob James leads directly to a virtually orchestral expedition spotlighting Loeb’s lyrical melody lines; James, East and Harvey Mason provide the newest member with sturdy rhythmic support but never in a static manner, focusing instead on the kind of vibrant interplay that only a group of musicians for whom intuition is second nature could ever hope to achieve.
“When the group started, we were just experimenting,” says James. “We all were curious about how the group dynamic would be different from our individual projects. We have no leader, but we are all leaders.” Silver, he adds, “was approached pretty much the same as all our projects. Each of us developed new original compositions separately and eventually brought them into the studio to develop.”
Indeed, the music on Silver, although composed by the members of Fourplay either individually or in collaboration with the others (and with a few friends), flows cohesively with an inherent single-mindedness that often makes it impossible to determine where a given idea originated. “A Silver Lining,” stemming from drummer Mason, sways softly, spotlighting not so much the deep grooves Fourplay readily kicks up but a more elegiac side of the band.
The next track on Silver is one of two that reunite two key earlier members of Fourplay with the current lineup. “Silverado” is co-penned by Loeb and Larry Carlton, the world-class guitarist who preceded him in the band; the other is “Windmill,” a collaboration between Mason and original Fourplay guitarist Lee Ritenour that closes the album. The two songs prove that even while Fourplay’s music has taken on many new characteristics during its 25-year journey, there’s always a consistency of quality, regardless of who’s got his hands on the guitar! The two guests perform on their respective tracks, with “Windmill”—which originally appeared on a Ritenour solo project—also featuring keyboardist John Beasley and Mitch Forman adding organ to “Silverado.”
Following “Silverado” is “Mine,” one of two tunes written solely by James. It finds the keyboardist and guitarist Loeb welding the band’s trademark romantic elegance with understated bluesy licks. “Silver Streak,” by Mason and Chris Wells, is a feast of rhythms and sounds, ranging from meditative to quasi-psychedelic in its daring reach. Loeb’s “Precious Metal” also features a high-profile guest player, the beloved saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and East’s “Aniversario” features the renowned bassist giving a display of what funk is all about before “Windmill” brings the proceedings to a dramatic close.
Regardless of who writes which song, or contributes which lick, says Loeb, a unique “Fourplay sound” makes itself known whenever these musicians are in the room together. “When a sports team wins a championship, or has enduring success,” he says, “people always talk of the ‘chemistry’ among the players. This is very much the same in music. Nathan, Bob, Harvey and Lee had an immediate musical DNA that evolved with Larry and then with me. There’s a shared mutual respect, and a very high level of fun when we get together and make music. It shows in the end result.”
“Our music is recorded live in the studio and there is no set rule,” adds Mason, explaining the band’s methodology. “Some tunes go quickly and some take more time as we may tweak and tweak. The key is respect, and the composer of each tune has the final word unless there are extremely strong objections, in which case we discuss and come to an amiable decision. It’s like a great marriage that has worked for 25 years.”
Produced by the group and recorded at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound—where Fourplay recorded their debut a quarter-century ago—Silver is meant not as a retrospective but as a marker, a definitive statement on where Fourplay finds itself in 2015. They’ve grown and evolved tremendously over the years, but one thing that’s never changed is their mutual admiration for one another, what James calls “the democracy, the strong desire to have all of us represented equally. We all compose for each project,” he says, “and we feature each other equally as soloists and ensemble players—it’s obvious to our fans when we perform live, the way the music flows across the stage, with each player sharing the spotlight. It is a constant four-way dialogue. We literally grew into the full meaning of our name…four players communicating their music as a team.”
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