Wednesday, June 3, 2009

FOURPLAY reviewed by Nate Chinen in the New York Times

Music Review Fourplay
Precision High Jinks From a Veteran Jazz Quartet
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Fourplay: From left, Nathan East, bass; Larry Carlton, guitar; and Bob James, piano; at the Blue Note.
Published: June 2, 2009

During the final moments of their early set at the Blue Note on Monday night, the members of Fourplay engaged in a bit of musical horseplay. First Bob James, the keyboardist, tossed off a pithy phrase. Nathan East, the bassist, picked it up, followed in turn by the guitarist Larry Carlton and the drummer Harvey Mason. The cycle repeated and quickened until the band was frantically circulating just one note, like a hot potato.

It was cute. But then cuteness has always been a reliable strategy for Fourplay, one of the leading brands in adult-contemporary music. Since 1990 the group has kept refining a bright and palatable sound, mixing chirpy melody with crisp rhythm, and R&B (by loose definition) with modern jazz (by an even looser one). Its consistency applies equally to the commercial side of the equation: almost all the band’s 10 albums have landed on the Billboard 200, including “Energy” (Heads Up), the most recent, released last year.

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;

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