New album from smooth jazz supergroup sees them cutting loose a little...
Peter Marsh 2002-11-20
Smooth Jazz - not everybody's cup of decaf latte perhaps, but there's little doubt that the movement owes a lot to keyboardist Bob James, whose early CTI albums pretty much defined the genre and provided hip hop producers with a whole bunch of breaks and beats (James has also been working with turntablist Rob Swift of late).
Fourplay is probably the smooth jazz group to top the lot, featuring James, guitarist Larry Carlton (formerly of the Crusaders and sessioneer for everyone from Steely Dan to Streisand), bassist Nathan East (usually found with Eric Clapton) and drummer Harvey Mason, whose fatback funk shuffle powered jazz funk classics by Charles Earland and George Benson.
Despite the players undoubted pedigrees, previous Fourplay albums have shown an understandable tendency to play safe; the fussiness of the arrangements and the unnaturally shiny production often yielded superficially attractive music that lacked bite. (A bit like a decaf latte in fact).
Heartfelt ups the ante though; this time round the band have abandoned their normal working processes in favour of a more collective approach, jamming in the studio then reassembling, editing and buffing up the results. Tracks like the opening "Galaxia" and "Cafe L'Amour" have an open ended, relaxed propulsion, anchored by Mason's crisp drumming (sometimes bolstered by programmed beats) and East's fat, sharp basslines which are always on the money.
It's easy to forget what a fine soloist James can be (and one with intriguing beginnings - check out his ESP album "Explosions"). He's back on the Fender Rhodes too for some of the time, which lends the music a warm, organic feel reminiscent of early James classics like "Nautilus".
Again, Larry Carlton (who replaced Lee Ritenour a couple of albums ago) is a masterful player whose mix of jazz harmonic sense with a bluesman's bite is never less than impressive, particularly on the collectively composed numbers. He cuts loose beautifully on "Cafe L'Amour" for a few bars in a manner that could teach John Scofield a few tricks. Throughout his control and expressivity are always ear catching; his acoustic playing on the Pat Metheny-esque title track is rather lovely too.
A few tracks don't come off; Mason's "Ju Ju" is a bluesy shuffle without much going for it save Carlton's solo, and East's vocal feature "Let's Make Love" is airbrushed soul cliche which seems out of place here. But for the most part this is a record that's hard not to like, played with craft and affection; next time round can we have a little more rough with the smooth please ?