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Issue 1084

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Fourplay: The Dream Team

Fourplay (L-R) Harvey Mason, Chuck Loeb, Nathan East &  Bob James.jpg
Fourplay (L-R) Harvey Mason, Chuck Loeb, Nathan East &  Bob James.jpg

Jazz supergroup Fourplay boasts a quartet of some of the most accomplished musicians on the planet. As an ensemble, they have clocked up 20 years, Grammy-nominations and million-selling records from a dozen albums. Simon Redley hooked up with the band in Londonâ¦â¦â¦.

Ever played fantasy football? You have a list of star players; choose a squad and an imaginary team. Well, if there was ever a version for Jazz, my dream team would be a no-brainer on bass, drums, keys and guitar. Nathan East. Harvey Mason. Bob James and Chuck Loeb. But they beat me to it almost 21 years ago, and called it Fourplay. A dream on paper, but on stage and in a recording studio? The guys definitely seem to have had the Midas touch.

Labelled âSupergroup,â they just released their 12th album, clocked up two decades since celebrated pianist and film/TV score composer Bob James, hooked up with bass legend Nathan East, drum star Harvey Mason and guitar icon Lee Ritenour at a recording session for his own album âGrand Piano Canyon.â Lee stayed for six years, until Larry Carlton replaced him. Larry left to do his solo thing last year, and top session man Chuck Loeb was invited to join their hallowed ranks. He brought a new direction to the band, and for their album âLetâs Touch The Sky,â released last year. The guys dropped in to London for their only UK date this year, at the Clapham Grand. Newly refurbished at a cost of £500,000, and a cracking job they have done too. The bandâs fourth UK gig since they began, but the first with newbie Chuck. I joined them for sound-check, a chat in the dressing room, photo session and the gig, to find out what the new line-up could offer, going into their third decade.

Bob tells me when the band began, no one envisaged it being such a long term project and the global success it turned out to be. âWe really were not thinking of it that way. We hoped it would be a while, and not a one off. Part of our desire to form the band, was to find out what it would be like when the identity of the group took on a life of its own. We knew that wouldnât happen in one record, so we definitely wanted it to have legs. But I donât think any of us were talking of 20 yearsâ worth of legs at that time.â Nathan addsâ âWe all think in terms of bringing the âAâ game, and trying to keep it at levels as high as possible, of what we each bring to the table. That kind of feeds on itself, and just keeps going.â

Their debut album, 1991's âFourplay,â sold over a million copies and hit number one on Billboardâs jazz chart for 33 weeks. Their follow-up, 1993's âBetween the Sheets,â reached number one, went gold, and received a Grammy nomination. In 1994, their third gold album, âElixir,â reached the number one position and remained on the chart for more than 90 weeks.

I ask Chuck what he brings to the party, and if that was the moment he realised âadrenalin was brown,â when he got the call to fill such huge shoes. âI guess each musician has their own DNA and musical personality, and I think my admiration for the different aspects of the two guitarists that preceded me, inspired me to try to bring as much to the table as I could. I guess looking back at making the first CD, and subsequent to that, I think it might be a little bit of a challenge in a certain way of pushing the envelope, trying to branch out in different directions harmonically and technically in the band. I know itâs been a welcome thing for everybody, because there is an energy that everybody sensed. A freshness.â

So that âphone call. To replace guitar giants Lee and Larryâ¦..âYeah, there was a little freak out moment. More than one. Iâd be thinking âwhat would Lee do, what would Larry do.â The guys put me at ease, and I got a lot of encouragement from my wife at home, saying you just have to let all that go and just be yourself. After a few months, it did subside. But it would be remiss in saying that I didnât go through a struggle, on comparing myself to those two icons.â Harvey chips in. âWe all encouraged Chuck to be himself. We wanted the new energy of what he brought, which changed the character of our playing as well. We moved forward together, and that is exactly what happened. The band is moving forward, and he brought some great songs.â Bob agrees.â It has definitely changed the direction of the music, because Chuck approaches his instrument and recording in the studio, the process of composing⦠he approaches things very differently to either Lee or Larry in the past. It is a very basic thing in jazz, being an improvised music, to respond spontaneously to whatâs going on at that moment. We are not ever I hope, going to limit ourselves by specifically trying to only do one style, or one way of making music. Jazz changes. I think jazz in general, because of its history and because of what it represents, a kind of free spontaneous feeling, is different from one year to the next. And the fact that Fourplay is different from one incarnation to the next, is a very natural thing and we love it.â

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Photos: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY

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