Sometimes it’s enlightening to consider the passage of music time in human terms. For example, kids conceived during their parents’ grooving to Fourplay’s first album in 1991 – a classic of its kind – have probably all left the nest for college as the indefatigable Fourplay’s twelfth album, Let’s Touch The Sky, heads out into the world in 2010.
Once and probably always considered a “smooth jazz” collective, this daddy of what’s now known as “contemporary jazz” presents founders Bob James on keyboards, Nathan East on bass and occasional vocals, Harvey Mason on drums and the group’s newest addition, Chuck Loeb, replacing Larry Carlton on guitar. Each boasts an impressive résumé as a studio musician and accompanist while perhaps only James and Mason have had notable, nee legendary, front-line success in the jazz world. But together, this foursome produces its very own sound, a tight lock of four like-minded musicians fronted by James’ varying keyboards (mostly piano) and the guitarist’s mellifluous counterpoint.
Each member of the group contributes material to the program, but usually the best material emanates from Bob James, a much stronger and more prolific writer than any of the other Fourplay members with the exception of former player Lee Ritenour. That’s true of Let’s Touch the Sky too. Here, James contributes the nicely conceived title track, the lovely “Gentle Giant (For Hank),” a warm and loving tribute to the late pianist Hank Jones offering superb commentary from all involved, and the album’s jazziest and very best track, “Golden Faders.”
Just as the group’s album titles have evolved from suggestive puns to motivational platitudes, James has provided compositions to Fourplay that raise the bar a bit more each time too. Ever since 2002’s Heartfelt, James has seemingly endeavored with his compositions to push the group beyond its smooth expectations and rather by-the-book delivery, the unfortunate byproducts of a successful synergy.
Too often elsewhere, there’s a tendency for complacency, as the group wallows in Fourplay retreads (Loeb’s ironically titled “Above and Beyond” is this disc’s seemingly obligatory “Bali Run” rerun) or crowd-calming sound-alikes (Loeb’s “3rd Degree,” East’s “I’ll Still Be Loving You” and “A Night in Rio” are all signature Fourplay forays).
Harvey Mason, on the other hand, provides two particularly nice compositions that evoke more of the drummer’s work back farther in time with James, with the lovely “More Than A Dream” recalling 1979’s Bob James/Earl Klugh classic One on One and the breezy fusion of “Pineapple Getaway” suggesting the underrated 1982 Bob James/Earl Klugh follow-up Two of a Kind.
Chuck Loeb is an inviting, though hardly unpredictable, addition to the group, adding quite a bit more spark of personality than Larry Carlton provided on nearly all of the previous seven Fourplay albums. Loeb, who is frequently associated with Bob James elsewhere, often recalls Lee Ritenour here. He is especially fleet fingered and surprisingly, given his admittedly pretty tone, adds a little more spice of the jazz fire to Fourplay.
This is particularly evident on the guitarist’s post-fusion redux “3rd Degree” (a reference to the place Loeb plays in the group's guitar chair), “Gentle Giant,” “A Night in Rio” and the excellent “Golden Faders.” On acoustic guitar, Loeb suggests a cross between the pretty sound of Earl Klugh and the slightly meatier approach of Lee Ritenour, a perfect foil for James, who has worked extensively with all three guitarists, and most notable on “Let’s Touch the Sky,” “More Than a Dream” and “Pineapple Getaway.”
Nathan East – whose bass solos are captivating on all three of the Bob James pieces – vocalizes in his inimitable Fourplay way on his own “A Night in Rio,” briefly during his solo on the title track and sings his own lyrics to his own very Stephen Bishop-sounding “I’ll Still Be Lovin’ You.”
Second season American Idol winner Ruben Studdard is featured on the group’s agreeable cover of “Love TKO,” a nicely considered tribute to the late Teddy Pendergrass, while Anita Baker takes a smokey and especially winning vocal on the particularly torchy sounding “You’re My Thrill,” perhaps the single best vocal piece ever heard on any Fourplay album (the singer appeared with the quartet at the JVC Jazz Festival in Oakland in 2009).
If more Fourplay albums sounded like what the group and Anita Baker achieve together on “You’re My Thrill,” I wouldn’t mind such vocal intrusions to these discs. More often than not, the Fourplay vocal songs are commercial distractions which seemingly have nothing whatsoever to do with the remainder of the record. Not so with “You’re My Thrill.”
After twenty years and a dozen albums, Let’s Touch the Sky may prove that Fourplay still has something left to say. Longtime Bob James fans will certainly appreciate some of the composer’s better recent compositions and the hefty dose of fine acoustic improvisation he provides.
Fans of Fourplay will hear plenty here to like too, including a higher-than-average abundance of notable music. And the addition of Chuck Loeb to the group signals what drummer Harvey Mason hopes “opens up new opportunities and new potential” for the group. If they don’t quite touch the sky here, they’re certainly headed in the right direction.