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Fourplay

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For two decades, the contemporary jazz quartet known as Fourplay has enjoyed consistent artistic and commercial success by grafting elements of R&B, pop, and a variety of other sounds to its unwavering jazz foundations. In the course of a dozen recordings—six of which have climbed to the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Album charts—the supergroup has continued to explore the limitless dimensions and permutations of jazz while at the same time appealing to a broad mainstream audience.

The story begins in 1990, with keyboardist Bob James, who had already established himself as a formidable figure in jazz, known not just as an instrumentalist but also as a composer and arranger, with a solo career dating back to the mid-1960s. It was in 1990, when James decided to reunite with Harvey Mason during the recording of James’s album Grand Piano Canyon. Mason, one of the most highly sought-after drummers of all time (Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, Notorious B.I.G.), was also well known as a composer and producer. This project also included Lee Ritenour and bassist Nathan East (Barry White, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Daft Punk). The recording marked the genesis of the group known as Fourplay.

The original lineup of James, Mason, East, and Ritenour released their self-titled debut in 1991 and stayed together for three successive albums, including Elixir in 1994. Elixir features vocalists such as Phil Collins, Patti Austin, and Peabo Bryson, along with East, who has continued to contribute vocals throughout the course of the group’s history.

For the release of the album titled 4 in 1998, Fourplay brought in Larry Carlton (The Crusaders, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones) to replace Ritenour, who left the group to pursue other projects. The album 4 included compositions by all four members and featured an impressive crew of guest vocalists, including El Debarge, Babyface Edmonds, Kevyn Lettau, and Shanice. Carlton stayed with the group for twelve years, before delving into his own solo career. During that time, the group continued its creative evolution, with releases such as Yes Please! in 1999, an album that challenged the standard definitions of contemporary jazz by incorporating elements of blues, funk, and Celtic.

Improvisation reigned supreme in 2002 with Heartfelt, born from a series of improvisational performances developed into full compositions with less clearly defined melodies. After releasing Journey in 2004, Fourplay released X in 2006, which featured vocals by the iconic Michael McDonald. Their album Energy was released in 2008 and spent three consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. The album weaves a variety of genres into a tapestry of Fourplay’s signature jazz foundations and features the singer Esperanza Spalding.

In 2010, virtuoso guitarist Chuck Loeb joined Fourplay on Let’s Touch the Sky, which features vocals by Anita Baker and Ruben Studdard. Their album Esprit de Four was released in 2012, which is highlighted by “Put Our Hearts Together.” The song, featuring vocals by Seiko Matsuda, is a tribute to raising awareness and relief efforts in Japan after the 2011 disasters.

The latest release, Silver, celebrates the legendary group’s twenty-fifth anniversary of creating innovative and uncompromising music together.

As usual Fourplay creates lightly funky and melodic groove music that is bluesy, danceable and quite accessible. Both James and Loeb take many fine solos but it is the sound of the ensembles that gives this group its own personality.

Jazz Inside

All of the songs have that great feeling of consistent quality and deep grooves that Fourplay and these high-profile guest artists bring to the studio. That sense of fellowship permeates Silver from start to finish and you can be assured that this recording is definitely one that is definitely ‘Sterling Silver.’

—AXS

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