Smooth Jazz Supergroups Double Bill: Fourplay and Spyro Gyra
For two decades, the contemporary jazz quartet known as Fourplay has enjoyed consistent artistic and commercial success by grafting elements of R&B, pop and a variety of other sounds to their unwavering jazz foundations. In the course of a dozen recordings – six of which have climbed to the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Album charts – the supergroup has continued to explore the limitless dimensions and permutations of jazz while at the same time appealing to a broad mainstream audience.
The Fourplay story begins in 1990, with keyboardist Bob James, who had already established himself as a formidable figure in keyboard jazz – not just as an instrumentalist but as a composer and arranger as well – with solo recordings dating as far back as the mid 1960s. In 1990, James reunited with his old friend, session drummer, producer, composer & recording artist Harvey Mason (Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, Notorious Big), during the recording of James’ Grand Piano Canyon album. Also involved in the project were guitarist Lee Ritenour (Sergio Mendes) and bassist/vocalist Nathan East (Barry White, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins).
The Grand Piano Canyon sessions marked the genesis of the group that eventually came to be known as Fourplay. Their self-titled debut album was released in 1991, and included a blend of jazz, R&B and pop.
The original lineup of James/Ritenour/East/Mason stayed together for three successive albums, including Elixir (1994), a set that features some high-profile guest vocalists: Phil Collins, Patti Austin and Peabo Bryson. East also delivers some noteworthy vocal contributions on Elixir, and has continued to do so throughout most of Fourplay’s subsequent studio outings.
Ritenour, whose guitar work in tandem with James’ keyboards served as the cornerstone of the early Fourplay sound, left the lineup in the mid-1990s and was replaced by Larry Carlton (The Crusaders, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones). Carlton made his first studio appearance with the band with the release of 4 in 1998. 4 included compositions by all four members, as well as an impressive crew of guest vocalists: El Debarge, Babyface Edmonds, Kevyn Lettau and Shanice.
Following the 1999 release of Snowbound, a mix of traditional and contemporary holiday songs, Fourplay shook things up a bit with Yes Please!, an album that challenged the standard definitions of contemporary jazz by incorporating elements of blues, funk and even Celtic music. JazzTimes critic Hilarie Grey called Yes Please! “an expansive album that incorporates each artist’s strengths, and in the process travels in some unexpected directions.” Grey added: “Yes Please! works where similar projects fail simply because it lets its artists play, without imposing artificial boundaries.”
The sense of experimentation continued with the 2002 release of Heartfelt. The material in this set emerged from a series of improvisational performances that were assembled into full compositions. As a result, the tunes have less clearly defined melodies, but the overall album is both exploratory and accessible at the same time.
Journey, released in 2004, is a laid-back affair, but complex at the same time. Consistent with Fourplay’s eclectic philosophy, Journey incorporates a range of stylistic elements – as evidenced by such high points as the delicate cover of the 1993 Sting hit “Fields of Gold” and the Mason bossa nova flavored “Rozil.”
X followed in 2006, with guest vocals by blue-eyed-soul icon Michael McDonald, who delivers an inspired rendition of Steve Winwood’s “My Loves Leavin’.” JazzTimes called X “a softly funky, superbly crafted and unapologetically low-key album.”
Fourplay joined the prestigious roster of artists on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group, with the 2008 release of Energy, which spent three consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. The album grafts a variety of sounds – R&B, pop, African and more – to Fourplay’s unwavering jazz foundations. In addition to vocals by East, Energy features a vocal track by bassist Esperanza Spalding.
After 12 years with the group, Carlton left in April 2010 to delve further into his solo career, and the band welcomed its newest member, multi-faceted virtuoso guitarist, Chuck Loeb. His musical contributions undoubtedly enhance the creativity and pursuit of excellence Fourplay has enjoyed in the studio and on the stage.
Loeb made his debut with the quartet on Let’s Touch The Sky, released in October 2010. The album also includes thrilling performances by guest vocalists Anita Baker and Ruben Studdard. The infusion of new blood into the Fourplay lineup created an opportunity to bring an even higher level of energy and inspiration into a band that is already known for taking chances and pushing the limits of contemporary jazz.
The group’s latest recording explores the place where four unique perspectives become a single creative force. That symmetry and creativity are at the heart of Esprit De Four, set for release on September 18, 2012. The CD includes the poignant but hopeful “Put Our Hearts Together,” written by James – with lyrics by his daughter, Hilary James, and vocal featuring Japanese superstar Seiko Matsuda – as a tribute to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.
Spyro Gyra is a jazz juggernaut who released their 30th album of new material The Rhinebeck Sessions in 2013, which Jazztimes called "inspired". Travis Rogers of the Jazz Journalists Association picked it for Jazz Album Of The Year. Something Else Reviews called it "Their finest album since their early 80s heyday" and made it a TopTwenty pick for the year. George Harris of the Jazz Weekly enthused, "I gotta tell ya, these guys still sound GREAT." Not bad for a band observing its 40th anniversary in 2014.
Theirs is an unlikely story of a group with humble beginnings in Buffalo, NY who has continued to reach an international audience over nearly forty years, resulting in sales of over 10 million albums and having played over five thousand shows on five continents.
They have accomplished this due to a forward looking approach combined with the work ethic of an underdog, always challenging themselves to do something new while never resting on past success. It has proven to be a recipe for longevity for this jazz group while music has gone in and out of styles in ever shorter cycles. 2014 marks forty years from their start in a Buffalo club where they were first known as "Tuesday Night - Jazz Jam."
"My hope is that our music has the same effect on the audience that it does on me," says group leader Jay Beckenstein. "I’ve always felt that music, and particularly instrumental music, has this non-literal quality that lets people travel to a place where there are no words. Whether it’s touching their emotions or connecting them to something that reminds them of something much bigger than themselves, there’s this beauty in music that’s not connected to sentences. It’s very transportive. I would hope that when people hear our music or come to see us, they’re able to share that with us."
Tickets go on sale January 24th!
Tickets: $35 / $45 / $55
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