Fourplay – Let’s Touch The Sky – Heads Up HUI-32030-02, 62:39 ****:
(Bob James – keyboards; Nathan East – bass, vocals; Chuck Loeb – guitar; Harvey Mason – drums, percussion; featuring special guests – Anita Baker; Heather Mason; Ruben Stoddard)
It is unusual to see a jazz quartet record twelve albums in twenty years with the same basic lineup. Anchored by the fluid play of keyboardist Bob James, Fourplay emerged as a stellar contemporary jazz group. The band included legendary session and solo artist Lee Ritenour on guitar, Nathan East (Barry White, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins) on bass, and Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, Sergio Mendes) on drums. The first albums featured smooth jazz interplay and guest vocalists. Eventually, Ritenour was replaced by Larry Carlton (Jazz Crusaders), without skipping a beat. Each member of Fourplay is a gifted individual musician. However, the confluence of the talent always resulted in an integrated sound. Lush textured arrangements bring a recognizable identity to their recordings.
As the title song, written by James unfolds, the shimmering piano runs and trademark synthesized strings wrap themselves around a lyrical melody. Newly added guitarist Chuck Loeb shines on his original composition, “3rd Degree”, with a graceful lead that is reminiscent of the James-Klugh collaborations in the seventies. “Pineapple Getaway” (Mason) has a hypnotic percussion by Mason that provided room for piano and acoustic guitar solos. The chemistry of the quartet is on display in “Golden Faders”, as subtlety underscores a breezy jam that includes tempo breaks.
James, who established a career of impressive songwriting, continues with this project. “Gentle Giant (Hank)”, a tribute to the late Hank Jones, coalesces up tempo swing and chord variations, Nathan East launches a nimble bass solo, returning to James and Loeb for inventive dual lead work. East contributes a suave vocal on “I’ll Still Be Loving You”. Guest vocalists show up on two separate numbers. Ruben Studdard resurrects Teddy Prendergast’s soul ballad, “Love TKO”, with gospel fervency, while Anita Baker lends her distinctly, bluesy alto voice to “You’re My Thrill”. Baker deftly uses phrasing and intonation to accentuate her jazzy vocals. The band creates an atmospheric introduction to the number that elevates the song’s aesthetics.
The sound mix of this record is excellent. Instrumental precision blends flawlessly with the layered sonic themes. Fourplay has staked out premier status in this accessible modern jazz genre.
TrackList: Let’s Touch The Sky; 3rd Degree; More Than A Dream; Pineapple Getaway; I’ll Still Be Lovin’ You; Gentle Giant (For Hank); A Night In Rio; Love TKO; Above And Beyond; Golden Faders; You’re My Thrill
— Robbie Gerson