When it comes to making music, four is often the magic number. From the Beatles to MJQ, many legendary quartets have made their mark in the classical, pop and jazz traditions. Maybe it’s the idea of four talented individuals, each approaching the other three from a unique perspective – like inspired travelers hailing from equidistant coordinates on a map – and bringing all of their talents to bear at a single point. Maybe it’s just the sheer mathematical symmetry and balance of the number itself.
Whatever the case, Fourplay has accessed that collective magic. Keyboardist Bob James, bassist/vocalist Nathan East, guitarist Chuck Loeb and drummer/percussionist Harvey Mason have tapped into the creative force that emerges when four brilliant players commit themselves to a singular goal. That symmetry and creativity are at the heart of Esprit De Four.
“In the songwriting and recording process, we were building on the spirit we felt during the making of our previous record, Let’s Touch the Sky,” says James, recalling their first recording with Loeb in the guitar position. “We had made the adjustment to Chuck’s sound, and had really enjoyed performing the new music on the road. So we were eager to follow up on this new direction the band had taken.”
Loeb concurs, noting that Esprit De Four is a satisfying balance of the known with the unknown – not just for himself but for his bandmates as well. “We were all in the mood to make an adventurous CD with challenging music, but still maintain that unmistakable Fourplay sound,” he says. “We always try to have fun and keep our spirits united in the effort toward excellence in sound, production and musical content. I personally always want to bring the best songs and performances to my work with these three legendary artists whom I have the great fortune to be working with.”
Esprit De Four includes contributions from all four members of the band, beginning with the melodic “December Dream,” a song by Loeb that’s deceptively quiet and understated on one hand, yet fueled by its own unmistakable energy on the other. Loeb says the song may have started out in his own head, “but once we got into the studio, each guy just brought so much more to the table. Check out the counterpoint that Bob contributes to the middle section, Harvey’s 21st century orchestral snare drums, and the amazing vocals and walking bass line that Nathan does in the finale, and I think you’ll see what I mean.”
Loeb’s additional contributions to the set include the upbeat and percussive “Sonnymoon” (a composition dedicated to Fourplay manager Sonny Abelardo) and the gently atmospheric “Logic of Love.”
The highly elastic and intriguing “Firefly,” written by East and frequent collaborator Tom Keane, is inspired by a young jazz trio from Stockholm called Dirty Loops. “They’re great musicians and good friends of mine,” says East. “I was hoping to capture some of the same fun and energy and unique chord progressions that the trio band is known for, and Fourplay really delivered it.”
East and Keane also came up with the slow and smoldering “All I Wanna Do,” a nod to Fourplay’s more romantic side, written in the tradition of the Neal Hefti classic “Li’l Darlin,” which the band covered on their 1993 album, Between the Sheets. East’s sensual vocals deliver the song’s unmistakable invitation to a passionate interlude.
Mason’s “Venus,” built on an engaging piano/guitar interplay, is both cosmic and melodic at the same time. “It evokes the image of the thought-provoking planet of love,” says Mason. “The song is mentally seductive, with a warm, simple melody supported by transparent dissonant chords that together create a probing, ethereal mood. When I write ballads or love songs for this group, I can’t miss, because these guys are so extremely sensitive and romantic.”
The poignant but hopeful “Put Our Hearts Together,” was written by James – with lyrics by his daughter, Hilary James – as a tribute to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The melody line delivered by the superstar Japanese pop singer Seiko Matsuda makes the song all the more personal and genuine.
“The people of Japan have been very supportive of my music for more than 30 years, and I’ve made wonderful friendships there,” says James. “When the tragedy struck, I was immediately motivated to do something.” He first performed the song at the Iwate Jazz Festival in Japan in September 2011, just six months after the disaster. “I attempted to compose something that would have a universal spirit. I could never have known how this song would grow and take on a life of its own as a result of its premiere performance last September.”
James’ other contribution is “Sugoi,” which is also influenced by Japanese music and culture, which James has gravitated to over the past few years. “Despite many attempts to learn the language,” he says, “I admit to knowing only the most basic conversational phrases. The title means ‘Nice…I like it.’ I hope people will say that after they hear the song.”
The title track, Mason’s second contribution to the album, closes the set with its anthemic vibe and unmistakable gospel undercurrent. “The guys clearly loved the direction the song was taking in the studio, so I went with it,” says Mason. “As the album came together, this tune – which remained nameless for the duration of the project – took on a feeling of unity, and I was honored when the guys named it ‘Esprit De Four.’ It’s truly amazing how things develop and take shape in this band. We always seem to be able to follow the path that unfolds when one is able to trust his instincts.”
It’s all part of the inexplicable thing that happens with four, especially when the four are as uniquely gifted as the individual members of Fourplay. Catch the spirit and the magic of Esprit De Four