Published: June 2, 2009
Monday’s set, which kicked off a four-night run, featured songs from that album alongside more established staples of the Fourplay catalog, and the only truly noticeable difference among them involved the relative enthusiasm of the crowd. “Chant,” a trademark single from the 1990s, was a suave opener, with Mr. East’s wordless singing (and, more cutely, whistling) set against a slow funk shuffle. “Ultralight,” a more buoyant tune from the new album, came next, and it was embraced by the audience a bit more tentatively at first.
But that was before the appealingly boppish melody had settled in, and before Mr. Carlton, who wrote the tune, had fashioned his blues-informed solo excursion. Precise and levelheaded musicianship is the stealth principle behind Fourplay’s success, as well as a good reason for its bond with a dedicated fan base. And that principle, often dampened by the airtight dimensions of the band’s recordings, assumes sharper focus in performance. This performance in particular featured a few more thoughtfully controlled statements from Mr. Carlton, who joined the group about a decade ago, replacing Lee Ritenour. On several tunes, including an old favorite, “101 Eastbound,” Mr. James accomplished just as much, imbuing his solos with a clear dramatic shape. As a rhythmic engine, Mr. Mason and Mr. East locked in tight and close, giving each groove a gravitational pull.
The problem, for much of the set, had to do with aesthetics. Mr. James could have toned down the gloss of his synthesizers; Mr. East’s vocals could have been less saccharine. The gauziness and breathiness made an especially lethal pairing on “Sebastian,” a new piece by Mr. James after a prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach. At best, Fourplay isn’t half that precious, though it should be noted that “Sebastian” met with ample applause.
Fourplay appears through Thursday at the Blue Note, 131 West Third Street, West Village, (212) 475-8592; bluenote.net.