Fourplay’s lineup has undergone only two changes in the group’s two decades together. The first came in 1998 when Larry Carlton replaced co-founder Lee Ritenour in the guitar chair; the second, two years ago when Chuck Loeb took over from Carlton. Bob James (keyboards), Nathan East (bass) and Harvey Mason (drums) have all stayed put. Throughout, the quartet’s approach has remained largely consistent. Those three guitarists boast distinctive styles that helped shape direction, yet none are radical by nature, and none were brought aboard to twist Fourplay’s textbook even-temperedness.
That said, Esprit de Four introduces some subtle but noteworthy evolutions, and much of that can logically be attributed to Loeb’s input. As on his debut with the band, 2010’s Let’s Touch the Sky, Loeb injects a sense of exploration into the program. Although his solos are never less than smartly conceived and cleanly executed, stepping out is not his main concern. Loeb prefers the role of instigator, and Esprit de Four contains more thrills than one normally expects from a Fourplay outing.
“Sonnymoon,” one of Loeb’s three songwriting contributions (and a reference to the group’s manager, not the Sonny Rollins classic “Sonnymoon for Two”) is a prime example of this rebooted dynamic. Fourplay has often gone down the funk road, but rarely have they broken away from convention quite this fiercely (East, especially, is on fire). James’ “Sugoi,” while midtempo and devoid of major shockers, nonetheless allows for enough animated, impromptu interplay to give it a sparkle. And both versions of Bob and Hilary James’ “Put Our Hearts Together,” one instrumental and one sung dramatically by Seiko Matsuda, are different enough to suggest that there’s still plenty of vision fueling this venerable collective.
[Editor’s note: Chuck Loeb died on July 31, 2017. Read JT’s obituary on Loeb.]