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Summer Jazz Party starts with Fourplay

Summer Jazz Party starts with Fourplay

To call the members of Fourplay jazz musicians is rather like referring to the people of Taiwan as Chinese: not completely inaccurate, but only part of a complicated picture.
For decades each of these men has been recording music in a variety of genres, often on blurry borderlines where compartmentalizing yields controversial terms like "crossover jazz," jazz-funk" and "fusion." Jazz was certainly certainly essential in inspiring these musicians, and at some point in their careers each has played music that can be called "jazz." But to further indulge the Taiwan analogy, jazz is not necessarily the band's defining characteristic, and it's even debatable whether they play jazz now. But if the ability to improvise on a theme, regardless of the style, is taken to be an integral element of jazz, then jazz this is.
To the dreaded jazz purists - perhaps more irascible than the pedants of any other genre - Fourplay's sound is a watered-down, pop-inflected take on the form. Even those not clouded by emotion may find it little more than the harmless middle of the road musak. But it is worth bearing in mind that each of these musicians has, at some stage of his career, been at the forefront of innovation at the boundary of the jazz-rock idiom.
Fourplay comprises keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, Harvey Mason on drums and Larry Carlton, who replaced original guitarist Lee Ritenhour in the late '90s. This year saw the band's ninth studio release "X," which pretty much continues the same tried and trusted formula. Although each member of the band perennially has his fingers in other pies, they are currently on the Asian leg of a tour that began in July in Europe and ends in Cleveland, Ohio in late October.
Many foreigners in Taiwan of a certain age will be able to hum a Bob James tune, without knowing its composer, or even its name. The pretty "Angela" found her way into the American consciousness as the theme tune to hit show "Taxi" in the late '70s to early '80s. At the other end of the spectrum, hip-hop fans might not know that it is James' fusion classic "Nautilus" that forms the basis of Ghostface Killah's "Daytona 5000."
James' career could not have started on a higher note when, as the prize-winner at a jazz festival in 1962, he was lucky enough to have his debut recording produced by Quincy Jones. His early work was more straight bop and actually quite avant garde, and as a leader with the Bob James Trio, he presided over one of the earliest uses of electronic music in improvised jazz on "Explosions" in 1965.
As a session player, arranger and producer for Creed Taylor's independent CTI records in the early '70s, James gained invaluable knowledge and connections before he moving on to become an A&R director for Columbia. In 1977, Columbia gave him his own subsidiary, which James named Tappan Zee and through which he issued four albums of smooth jazz-funk, each simply named after its number. "Three," which actually saw James team up with Mason (as far back as 1976) was probably as daring as it got before James' output became increasingly saccharine in the late '70s and into the '80s.
James has been fairly adept in other styles of music and early on demonstrated a penchant for dabbling in classical styles, with his take on Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" on "One." He has twice tried his hand at electronic interpretations of Baroque composers (on "Rameau in 1977," and "Scarlatti Dialogues" in 1990), no doubt infuriating an entirely new group of fundamentalists in the process, but to relatively pleasing effect.
Critics have dismissed a great deal of James' work over the last 30 years, but the fact that a whole new generation of music fans has been exposed to his work, albeit unwittingly in many cases, testifies to its continued relevance.
Nathan East was still a teenager when he got the gig with Love Unlimited Orchestra, the 40-piece ensemble that supported the late soul behemoth Barry White. At a spritely 50, East is the youngest member of the band by some distance and readily admits having grown up listening to the work of his Fourplay colleagues. Though his early influences came from jazz greats like upright bass players Ron Carter and Charlie Mingus, he has largely recorded in R&B and urban-soul milieus.
During the '80s, East was one of the most in-demand session players around, and his work from that era can be heard on a string of hits including the Lionel Rionel Ritchie-Diana Ross duet "Endless Love," and Kenny Loggins' "Footloose." He also co-wrote a number of hits including the the Phil Collins-Philip Bailey smash "Easy Lover," (#2 U.S., #1 UK) in 1984.
He was a member of Eric Clapton's band in the late '80s before Bob James invited him to join him in founding Fourplay shortly after they had finished work on the former's "Grand Piano Canyon" in 1990. As well as his prodigious technique on bass, East possesses a pleasant singing voice that can be heard on the occasional Fourplay number, such as the Babyface-penned "Let's Make Love" on 2002's "Heartfelt."
Earlier this year, Fourplay was accompanied by keyboardist Herbie Hancock at the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival. It would doubtless have felt like old times for drummer Harvey Mason, who shot to prominence on the jazz innovator's seminal "Headhunters" LP in 1973.
Mason's first big gigs were with piano greats Erroll Garner and George Shearing in the early '70s before he established himself as a top session player in film and televsion. As well as having played alongside a host of jazz's finest, he recorded albums as a leader for Arista in the '70s-'80s. Mason has also backed some of soul's biggest stars, including Aretha Franklin and James Brown and played on "This Masquerade," George Benson's breakthrough as a singer in 1976.
The fact that Jazz Crusaders had dropped the "Jazz" from their name shortly before Larry Carlton joined them in 1971 is revealing. Carlton is definitely not a straight-ahead jazz player in the accepted sense, and a lot of his work is closer to blues. He has admitted that B.B. King making as much of an impression on him in his youth as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Carlton has always managed to fuse these influences to create a cohesive whole that, as with the playing of his Fourplay cohorts, is often hard to pigeonhole.
During the '70s, Carlton reportedly worked on as many as 500 albums a year, and his solo on the song "Kid Charlemagne" from Steely Dan's "The Royal Scam" of 1976 was voted the third-best of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Other highlights from this period include his contributions on Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark," which is in more of a folk-rock vein.
Like James, Carlton performed one of the most easily identifiable refrains of the 1980s on Mike Post's "Hill Street Blues Theme," which, because of the immense popularity of the series, became a top ten hit and earned a Grammy in 1981 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, one of three the guitarist has won.
Fourplay has enjoyed the level of success one would expect of a band with such an experienced and talented lineup. The band's albums have frequently gone gold and all but a couple have topped the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. They remain a top-draw act with the middle-aged smooth-jazz crowd.
When James invited Mason, Ritenhour and East to form the band, he did so with the intention of creating an equal-partnership. Fourplay has maintained this modus operandi and "X," released last week on RCA contains at least two compositions by each member.
The balance in songwriting duties finds a parallel in Fourplay's sound, in which one can detect elements from all the styles these musicians have been involved in over the years. Critics frequently label the band's music "lightweight," but the musicians here are giants of contemporary music, with resumes stretching back 45 years.
Taiwan does not host musicians of this caliber all that often, and, whatever your tastes, if you want to hear quality live music played by some of the best in the world, skipping the Fourplay, while easily done, might not be in your best interests.
Fourplay will performed at the National Concert Hall on August 11. This "dream team" of musicians will kick off Taipei's Summer 2006 Jazz Party. Tickets range from NT$500 to NT$2,500, and are available through the NTCH ticket system.


Updated : 2021-10-19 04:14 GMT+08:00