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Bob James/Nathan East: The New Cool

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Keyboardist Bob James and bassist Nathan East explore their long-held musical connection on the mostly acoustic album The New Cool, an elegant, sensitively performed collection of originals and covers. The New Cool marks the first but hopefully not the last time these two artists have collaborated on a duo-billed project such as this.

For a quarter of a century, James and East have played together as half of the immensely popular contemporary-jazz superband Fourplay (more on that later), and the musical rapport and camaraderie they exhibit on The New Cool is unmistakable-like two close friends enjoying an evening of shared interests and good conversation.

While East is probably best known as an electric bassist, on The New Cool he primarily plays upright bass, revealing himself to be an agile, melodic acoustic player as he deftly supports and enhances James’ piano melodies. The two engage in playful give-and-take on the stately yet lively title track and offer a lovely, intimate reading of the standard “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Not every track on The New Cool is a duet, nor do James and East stick strictly with acoustic instruments. On “All Will Be Revealed,” James plays both piano and the Yamaha Motif XF electronic keyboard, East contributes bass and wordless vocals and the Nashville Recording Orchestra provides uptempo, angular accompaniment to create a piece that’s simultaneously peppy and richly cinematic. Country star Vince Gill guests on the album, delivering a beautiful vocal performance on a lush orchestral take on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” The appropriately titled full-band track “Turbulence”-featuring the orchestra, along with percussionist Rafael Padilla and drummer Scott Williamson-ebbs and flows in tempo and intensity to bring the album to a dramatic close.

James and East reteam with their Fourplay bandmates on Silver, an album that celebrates the quartet’s 25th anniversary. Fourplay was born in 1990 after East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Lee Ritenour guested on James’ album Grand Piano Canyon and decided to form a group. Their self-titled 1991 debut album was a massive commercial success, and more than a dozen albums later Fourplay remains one of contemporary jazz’s most popular acts. The lineup has remained remarkably intact all these years, save for the guitarists. Ritenour left after three albums and was replaced by Larry Carlton, who stayed for 12 years before departing in 2010. He was replaced by current guitarist Chuck Loeb, a smooth-jazz star and in-demand producer.

Silver offers more of the band’s seamless blend of jazz, pop and R&B, and nearly all of the track titles salute the anniversary by referring either directly or indirectly to silver. The gently swinging “Quicksilver” highlights Loeb’s graceful, catchy guitar lines, while “Sterling” is an elaborate, shape-shifting full-band production. James pays tribute to Horace Silver on the laidback ballad “Horace,” and the dramatic “Silver Streak” features anthemic rock guitar underpinned by textured electronic rhythms.

Carlton and Ritenour return for a track apiece on Silver. Carlton leads the infectiously grooving, soul-jazzy “Silverado,” while Ritenour is spotlighted on the album closer, an updated version of his guitar ballad “Windmill,” co-composed with Mason, that originally appeared on Ritenour’s 1987 album Portrait.

Originally Published