Fourplay - Esprit De Four (2012) High-Fidelity FLAC Stereo 24bit/44.1kHz
Title: Esprit De Four
Genre: Jazz, Modern Jazz, Fusion, Smooth Jazz
Label: © Heads Up International
Release Date: 2012
Quality: High-Fidelity FLAC Stereo 44,1kHz/24bit
Recorded by Ken Freeman at Glenwood Place Studios, Burbank, CA
For over 20 years, the collaborative ensemble Fourplay has grown ever more cohesive in its approach to modern jazz. When the three founding members added guitarist Chuck Loeb to the lineup for 2010's Let's Touch the Sky, the group attained perfect dialogic balance. Fourplay had made fine records before, but the guitar chair always felt either under- or overutilized. Though the long established leader, Loeb's writing, arranging, and playing are more ensemble-oriented than either of his two predecessors, Lee Ritenour or Larry Carlton. On Esprit de Four, Fourplay display themselves as among the most intuitive, forward-thinking, and focused groups in modern jazz -- yet remain very accessible. While their aesthetic has been and remains contemporary, they employ classic approaches to composition, melodic improvisation, rhythm, and harmony. Loeb's "December's Dream" kicks things off. It's an airy composition that weaves together folk, pop, jazz, and even Americana. The shimmering cymbal work of Harvey Mason highlights the interplay between Bob James and Loeb, while Nathan East's bassline instills the melody with an irresistible groove. On "Sonnymoon," his bassline is deeply funky, preceding a fine exchange between the rich colors in Loeb's chords and the warm texture of James' electric piano, all given weight by Mason's trademark breaks. The latter's title tune presents a Brazilian groove illustrated by Loeb's acoustic guitar atop unobtrusive background synth and organic percussion. James supports with fills and subtle timbral voicings. Vocals have been prevalent on past Fourplay records, but here they are upfront only on the bluesy nocturnal soul of East's "All I Wanna Do," and the closer, a vocal version of James' "Put Our Hearts Together," sung beautifully by Seiko Matsuda. The rest are used as wordless textures, like another instrument in the mix. The tune, originally an instrumental, was written by James for a concert in Japan right after the earthquake and tsunami. His daughter Hilary heard it and asked to write lyrics for an abbreviated version. Both are present here. The instrumental commences as a haunting, pop-classical piece that gives way to a weave of lyric conversation that eventually becomes a swinging post-bop jam with an excellent solo by James. Esprit de Four is a shining example of jazz as a collaborative endeavor; these well-established soloists play as equals in a band that communicates on a level that most groups only dream of. --AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek
Bands don't last over two decades with minimal turnover in personnel and continued success if they're composed of egotists, prima donnas, drama queens or people that just don't play nice together. Fourplay has endured and thrived because it is an egalitarian coalition of seasoned professionals who set aside private agendas to serve the group dynamic.
When a new guitarist joins Fourplay it typically takes their sophomore recording with the long-running band before they truly begin to fit in. In over 20 years there have been only three personnel changes, with original guitarist Lee Ritenour being replaced by Larry Carlton, who manned the spot for 12 years and seven albums, until he exited and Chuck Loeb became the "new guy" on Let's Touch the Sky (Heads Up, 2010).
Stability has been a strength for this assemblage of veteran musicians even if consistency has led the band to be dismissed by critics little more than slick, smooth jazz. That was truer before than it is now as the Fourplay of 2012 bears little resemblance to the 1991 version despite three-quarters of the lineup being still composed of founders Bob James, Nathan East and Harvey Mason.
James' keyboards are still at the heart of the group, but whoever the guitarist is gives it much of its soul, and on Esprit De Four a lion's share of the direction as well. Loeb is predominantly featured on the first four tracks and guides the group into making music that is too passionate to be "slick." Even when East takes his standard vocal turn on "All I Wanna Do," Loeb's guitar is front and center leading the way.
This hardly means the rest of the band recedes into the background. Mason's "Venus" is lush and lovely with James and Loeb gently trading leads before smoothly dueting to the close. "Sonnymoon" is the closest these old pros come to sounding like "classic" Fourplay, as the Mason and East rhythm section keeps things fast and funky. It's just an excuse for four minutes of jamming, but let no one think Fourplay can't still get down when it wants to.
If Loeb steps up to assert himself as primary soloist, James, who will turn 73 in December 2012, seems willing to relinquish some of the spotlight to Loeb, or at least doesn't seem the least stressed out sharing it. James has a deep fondness for Eastern culture and his two contributions, "Sugoi" and "Put Our Hearts Together," are evidence of that influence. "Put Our Hearts Together" (in both an instrumental and vocal version) is dedicated to the people of Japan in the wake of 2011's horrific earthquake and tsunami. Esprit De Four eschews the Fourplay formula of American chart-topping guest vocalists such as Anita Baker or Michael McDonald in favor of a demonstration of cross-cultural outreach, as Japanese superstar Seiko Matsuda to provides the vocals for "Put Our Hearts Together."
The charge most frequently levied at Fourplay by its detractors is that the music is safe and formulaic. While it would be an untruth to say this is the most freewheeling quartet in jazz, it's petty to confuse popularity and acclaim with shallowness and superficiality. Fourplay cares too deeply about its music to be a cynical superstar band conceived as little more than a cash grab. --Jeff Winbush, All About Jazz
1 December Dream 7:45
2 Firefly 4:09
3 Venus 7:09
4 Sonnymoon 4:12
5 Put Our Hearts Together (Instrumental Version) 6:05
6 All I Wanna Do 4:14
7 Logic Of Love 7:03
8 Esprit De Four 6:22
9 Sugoi 4:22
10 Put Our Hearts Together (Vocal Version) 3:18
Chuck Loeb – guitar, synthesizer
Lizzy Loeb – vocals
Tom Keane – guitar
Nathan East – bass, vocals
Bob James – keyboards
Harvey Mason, Sr. – drums, percussion, synthesizer
Seiko Matsuda – vocals
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