Fair play for Fourplay

Former John Stevens sideman Francis Graham-Dixon reviews Fourplay in performance on the eve of the London Jazz Festival and asks why is this kind of music generally so ill-served by the jazz press?

FourplayFourplay embarked 20 years ago on a collective project that has stood the test of time. Those lucky enough to witness their performance at The Grand, Clapham at the end of a European tour were treated to a spellbinding night of music combining emotional power and intensity with peerless virtuoso brilliance; hardly a surprise when you consider that this group of musicians comprise some of the very best instrumentalists and songwriters of any era, and all at the top of their game. Yet I have seen no other review of this brilliant gig in the jazz press. Why is this kind of music generally so ill-served by the specialists?

Bob James, Harvey Mason, Nathan East and new guitarist Chuck Loeb (compellingly filling the spot formerly occupied by Larry Carlton) are creating music that is entirely their own. Always looking to break new boundaries, theirs is a rich lexicon synthesising contemporary jazz with strong African, Brazilian, funk, soul and blues influences. The label "smooth jazz", invoked by the more unmusical of critics in an attempt to encapsulate their sound, does this music scant justice.

The band gave a radio interview in Holland on the 6 November, and wanted to make the point that they "feel uncomfortable" being typecast in this way. The Clapham gig proved the point. Harvey Mason's drumming, for example, was just about the most complete exposition of the art I have witnessed in over 40 years, as was the performance of a group where there are no stars; it is all about respecting each other's music, taking risks and pushing the boundaries each time they play.

Their stage presence is electrifying, each musician intuitively rising to the creative and technical demands of live performance while somehow enmeshing the clarity of their distinctive studio sound for which Ken Freeman, their multi-talented mixing engineer, should take a bow. It is rare hearing live music with optimum sound balance capturing every inflection of guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. Quieter passages had the sensitivity you might expect from a chamber music quartet.

As diehard fans know, no two concerts are alike. Fourplay's live repertoire remains eclectic and adventurous, clever in that their passion for improvisation within a compositional structure gives the music its edge and vitality, highlighted in one inspired Mason solo where he discarded with sticks to play the kit with his hands. Timeless classics like Bali Run, Max-O-Man, Chant, Robo Bop and Blues Force were re-invented, complementing brilliantly the selections from their ground-breaking latest release, Let's Touch the Sky: Harvey Mason's Pineapple Getaway and More Than A Dream, Bob James's Gentle Giant- (For Hank), Nathan East's I'll Still Be Lovin' You and Chuck Loeb's  Above And Beyond and 3rd Degree. The only regret was not hearing James's haunting album title track.

These men continue to sustain performances of the highest quality with this date as good as any I can recall in four decades of jazz listening. The prolonged ovation said it all. Horns are rumoured to feature for the first time on the next album. They've touched the sky, so where to now? On this evidence, onward and upward.

Your Comments:

Posted by Werner Nieke, 22 November 2011, 22:39 (1 of 2)

Francis, you take the words out of my mouth and heart with this brilliant article!!! I will never understand, how the general jazz (writing, making) community can so consistently overlook the stellar caliber that these four geniuses bring to the stage. Since when is it considered sacrilege, if (when) a jazz tune sports a nice melody? And yet this seems to rub hard-core Jazzers the wrong way, time and time again. *smh* (shaking my head)
Posted by Francis Graham-Dixon, 28 November 2011, 20:46 (2 of 2)

I am glad I'm not alone! To my ears, the many compositions that stand up to constant listenings over the years speak to the emotional honesty of this music. It has a heart, and their facility in creating tunes that combine complex harmonies, textures and rhythmic interplay is peerless. I have played a selection to some uninitiated friends who were overwhelmed by their first Fourplay listening experience, so I remain cautiously optimistic!
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