You are here:Home>Jazz Artist Interviews>Bob James

Bob James

Fourplay Fourplay Maura Lanahan

Salivating fans, awaiting the newest arrival, can now take a breath as Fourplay releases their latest album, Energy, on their debut with Heads Up label.

Captivating hearts for more than a decade, Fourplay brings together four of the hottest talents today-each member a musical genius, mega-star in his own right. Blending R&B, pop and jazz, Fourplay creates a distinct fingerprint of musical magic.

A quick and lighthearted introduction to the members:

Keyboardist Bob James is known for his classic song, "Angela," also known as the "Theme from Taxi." James is a two-time Grammy Award winner, composer, arranger and producer. Sounds tame, but this guy is a ball of fire behind a keyboard.

Larry Carlton, guitarist, three time Grammy winner, known for his contribution to theme of "Hill Street Blues," as well as his famous performance on "Kid Charlemagne" with Steely Dan, along with a series of albums that stayed number one in pop, jazz and blues.

Bassist/vocalist, Nathan East, has performed with Eric Clapton, Barry White and Phil Collins. East possesses a rich, high octave voice, reserved only for the gifted elite of vocals and compared in range to (possibly) Philip Bailey or El De Barge.

Harvey Mason, one of the most coveted drummers and composers who is so distinguished that a technique is taught in the Harvey Mason style of drumming. Mason has played on more gold and platinum albums than any other drummer, according to the Smooth Jazz, Music Choice cable station.

Interviewing Bob James is an honor and a pleasure:

JazzReview: I am so excited about your new release, Energy, and welcome to Heads Up.

Bob James: You know, it’s been a great, exciting time for us. Dave Love and the group at Heads Up have been great to us. It’s amazing how much difference that makes, too. Sometimes with the bigger companies, an individual artist feels a little lost.

JazzReview: Dave Love takes an interest in what happens with each of his members.

Your group is spectacular. Each member is a mega star in his own right.

Let’s begin with you: When you sit down at the keyboard, what happens to you? You become one with your music-kind of like an Energizer Bunny plugged into a charger...

Bob James: One of the things that happens, which is why I like the title for this album, is the other three guys energize me. There’s no doubt about it. Whether for a live concert or when in the studio recording, there something about these guys. We have such different outlooks and such a different approach to our music. What happens when the four of us come together is hard to define exactly, but, it’s a lot of magic and energy, and never anything less than tremendous fun.

JazzReview: Does the audience disappear while you are playing, or does the audience become your focus and energize you?

Bob Jame: I guess both. I’ve had critiques in the past by friends and audience members who say it seems like I’m off into my own world. So I’ve tried consciously to be more aware and look out into the audience. Sometimes that doesn’t seem as natural to me as when I allow myself to be immersed into the music.

JazzReview: While watching an older video of you performing, I noticed you sat down at your keyboard and melded into it. Everything else disappeared. You became a big package of magnificent sound.

Bob James: I’ve noticed that I have lived with the piano for so long, it’s become like a part of my body. When I’m not playing, it seems as if something’s missing. When I get back to the piano, there’s a comfort-ability that’s unlike anything else I feel.

JazzReview: Your fantastic new album, Energy, opens with "Fortune Teller," a track featuring interplay between you and Larry Carlton, with Nathan East and Harvey Mason keeping the solid back-beat.

Please tell me about your musical relationship with one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Larry Carlton. He is another unique individual. When he gets behind his guitar, you never know what’s going to happen. You just know it’s going to be spectacular, and you’d better stay tuned or you will miss something. Your musical conversation with Larry tells us you are not strangers.

Bob James: In terms of the group, it was quite different when Lee Ritenour left and Larry joined the group. Their styles are very different. By the time Larry started, I was already familiar with Ritenour and his style and approach, but I was not familiar with, or on a first name basis with Larry. I had heard and admired his work, but we had never worked together when Larry decided to join Fourplay.

It was a ‘getting to know each other’ kind of experience. He had done most of his work on the west coast prior to that, and I’d done most of my work on the east coast. We had each worked with a lot of different musicians so it was a learning curve. I had some concerns because Larry is such a strong blues player. I was hoping to have enough ammunition to get under his guitar, in terms of support.

We went back and forth and found out how to play with each other. Of course, I’m sure he had some of the same concerns, but I would say now, especially in live performances, Larry is so confident and has so much energy with the audience; I would say it’s a treat working with him.

JazzReview: You make a perfect couple, if you don’t mind the expression. Like a married couple forming a symbiotic union. You generate so much electricity that when Larry joins you, it’s like "This isn’t possible. This can’t be happening."

"The Whistler" is a change of pace, written by Harvey Mason. This is a lighthearted, zippy tune. Then your group does "Ultralight" written by Larry Carlton. A little heavier on percussion than the previous song, this tune allows Mason’s method of drumming to shine. I’ve read there is a "How To" course on the art of drumming using the Harvey Mason Method.

What makes Mason’s work so different from other drummers?

Bob James: One thing you brought up, immediately, is about him being a composer. That sets him apart from a lot of drummers. He’s a great composer, and probably, he’s the most prolific within our group. Every time we have a project, he brings in a lot of material-- so much that we have material in reserve. He’s got ideas in his head all the time.

From the first time I met Harvey, he instantly understood the composition of what I was working on. And, he orchestrated it. He didn’t just find the beat. He didn’t just find some standard way a drummer would play it. He literally heard the dynamics of the composition in a way that only a composer would understand it-- how he should play one section differently from other sections-or change his dynamics, or change his approach, or whatever.

And every time I play with him, he’s like a conductor. He shapes the music. A drummer always has a lot of power in a group, but that power can sometimes be restrictive in the sense that if it’s just a metronome or if he’s just a time keeper, it’s more difficult to make the music flow. The conductor within him gives room to make the music flow. He’s loose when we need a lot of freedom. He also tightens up when we need to have that real strong groove. He has a unique way of approaching that instrument that goes way beyond just being a time keeper.

JazzReview: Harvey is definitely special in what he does. He’s very deep.

Written by Nathan and Marcel East along with cousin Alan Dones, "Cape Town" shows off the magnificent, highly spirited, vocals of Nathan, while adding background vocals of Sara, Noah and Elijah East. This song tells a story.

I wasn’t aware until I watched an older video of your group the other night, just how magical Nathan East’s voice is, reaching octaves reserved only for the elite of vocals-such as Philip Bailey. Though East is known worldwide for his bass playing, his voice can send chills down the listener’s body.

Could you share with us, the magic of Nathan East’s high vocals-the electricity he garners from the audience--along with some insight into his bass playing?

Bob James: Going back, "Cape Town" is probably the most interesting tune because of the way it evolved. When Nathan arrived in the studio, he had this very, very rough sketch. He knew already in his mind that he wanted to do this story with the lyrics and all of that, but none of the other three of us knew anything about that. I only knew there was a sketch with some very simple grooves I had to play with this title. That’s all I knew about it.

The way of the process of writing some of this stuff is it doesn’t all take place simultaneously or in the studio. Even after Larry and I left the studio, Nathan and Marcel kept working on this story, and it kept evolving and evolving, adding the voices and the story line, after the fact. I didn’t even hear this until about a month after being in the studio.

When I got a chance to hear it, I freaked out, thinking, "Wow, this is a complete epic." Knowing his family the way I do-- he has an amazing family, with such a colorful history--to put all that into a story like this-- and to have it graced by the ---projects was just wonderful.

JazzReview: This should be very popular as your group travels to South Africa later this year.

Bob James: We are. And in addition to that, we have a DVD just released in Japan, of a live performance we did in Cape Town. It has taken a long time to get this video finished and all the legal issues resolved. So now, it’s one of my favorite performances we’ve ever done. It’s great that we were able to capture it on video.

We have live video from when Lee was still in the group. But we don’t have a complete live video with Larry. So this is the first one and definitely the first complete live video in concert in the whole ten years we’ve been together. It will be great to have it. I think it’s mostly coincidental that it’s called Live In Cape Town-- with the song called "Cape Town." We’re also going back to Cape Town in November. I’m really pleased with all of this.

JazzReview: So, this will be exciting. That means this is one of those things that was suppose to happen, even if you didn’t understand it at the time. It was all coming together. I know Dave Love has a strong feeling for South Africa so I wasn’t surprised to see your group is headed there.

Bob James: I see you know something about Dave Love. He is great.

JazzReview: Again, you get turned lose on keyboard for another song written by you, "The Yes Club," an expansive tune with a symbiotic interplay with all the band members, keeping the energy at a high pitch before coming back with "Prelude for Lovers."

Esperanza Spalding appeared with sensual vocals, adding richness to this song, written by your daughter, Hilary and her husband Kevin. How did Esperanza come about for this song?

Bob James: Originally from the inspiration of Dave Love. Originally, we were thinking about Roberta Flack. One thing led to another-scheduling problems and so forth so that didn’t work out. We had this track that we loved, which my daughter and her husband had written. We were hoping to include it. So, it was just sort of sitting there, waiting for the right singer. We discussed it with Dave Love and he said why don’t we give Esperanza Spaulding a try?

When he first brought up the name, I didn’t know anything about her. I immediately did my homework and discovered what Dave Love was talking about. Still, never having met her and never having worked with her, I had no idea if it would be such a good match. Sometimes, no matter how talented we think people are, if it’s oil and water, you don’t necessarily have a good mix, and that just doesn’t work out. So, I had a little anxiety.

I had to do the track with her because she was sitting in the arch and logistically, we had to do it that way. The first time I ever met her was the day we booked her to be in the studio to do her vocal. Within five minutes of meeting her, I agreed with Dave Love that she was the right person for this track. She was adorable, charming and oh, so open to new ideas. It was just a dream come true. It was a real highlight of the project, getting a chance to meet her and to get her on the record.

Within a few days, I discovered how hot she is now with her own career. It was the next week after recording our tune that she went on David Letterman. I thought, ‘It’s great we got her when we did.’ Another six months and she would be too busy with her own career and we wouldn’t have gotten her. She’s a unique talent.

She’s also a fantastic bass player. In fact, she plays the big stand-up bass when she’s with her own group. She’s phenomenal. Seeing this really cute girl playing the hell out of the bass was a unique experience. As I recall, while she was on the Letterman show, Paul Shaffer said he thought she was the best musical act that had been on the show. That’s really saying something considering everyone in pop music has been on that show.

JazzReview: That’s another issue I wanted to bring up about your music. It is catalogued as jazz. Yet, your group transcends genre, culture, age, all of it. It’s like whatever you play seems to fit in every category. You are a classic.

Bob James: That’s very nice of you to say that. I believe all four of us have the desire to not limit ourselves. None of us like the stereotyping that takes place a lot, --inevitably, in music there’s some kind of a name. But I think the best music is always just outside of that box. If you stay in there, you’re in a formula situation and if you have the courage to keep going forward, even though there is no name for it yet, it’s more in the spirit of jazz to me than just playing jazz the way it was played 40 years ago.

It has to evolve. Then it becomes re-defined and eventually somebody will find a new way to describe it in the future, after it’s been done. To me, jazz is more of an attitude-a way of life. The song changes with each play due to influences and all kinds of things.

JazzReview: Yes, because it is improvisational. By its very nature it’s expansive. That’s what makes it jazz. You have a fingerprint. But you’re not trapped. Within two or three notes, I can tell if it’s you on keyboard or Larry on guitar. But from there, I never know which way your group is going.

Bob James That’s good-as long as you go with us on the adventure.

JazzReview: Oh yes.

That brings me to the next song, "Comfort Zone," which Larry wrote. You and Larry get into a tight conversation on this song. "Comfort Zone," is described as a cool guitar-driven groove on top of East’s rock solid bass lines and Mason’s Metronomic drum work. In laymen’s terms, what does this mean?

Bob James: Well, I know one thing about that song: it’s so simple. Larry has the ability to write these simple kinds of little riffs that are very deceptively simple. If anyone said to me, "well it would be very simple to write one of those", I would have to say, "try it." (Chuckle) Most would end up with nothing. But Larry ends up with magic.

And, it holds up. And, sometimes, in the spirit of the way he plays his instrument, all he really needs is a jumping off place to tie the whole thing together. Then, it does become about the groove. It’s just that infectious magic. He’s not trying to re-invent the wheel. He’s not trying to come in with something heavy or anything. He’s just creating his deceptively simple magic which he’s spent a whole lifetime getting to.

JazzReview: Absolutely. One or two notes and you can tell it is Larry and you’re in for a ride.

JazzReview: The album closes with "Sebastian," bringing a touch of classical music to the mix. Yet, it’s jazz and has a mind of its own. Please tell me how you decided on this song.

Bob James: We’ve had so many conversations about injecting something different into the mix just for the sake of variety, partially, to keep us fresh so we don’t get into a rut. And so we keep trying new things.

Back in the early days, we wondered about the identity of the group, how to come together and have a unique sound. We wanted to be identified as a unique group that had a sound of its own that was separate from each of the individuals (involved).

We always looked at the Modern Jazz Quartet, just for inspiration on how individuals could come together and form a unique sound. We always admired them, though we didn’t want to sound exactly like them. I was always a big fan of John Lewis and his ability to blend in the classical influence with jazz work. We all admired that.

We talked about when or if we might want to come in and do something that had a Baroque sound-or something like that. So, as a complete experiment, and without telling any of the guys about it in advance, on a day we were recording, that we didn’t have a schedule, we met with a very obscure, relatively unknown piece from Bach

I tried a chord progression that I liked. I didn’t even necessarily want to do a Bach composition, as such, --straight. I just wanted something that would send us off in a different adventure. And, in fact, it did just that. They were intrigued by it. Everybody was in a good mood that day and as we were working on it, it ended up going in a much different direction than we thought.

Nathan ended up doing just great vocals on it. That all happened very spontaneously. Larry and I worked out these contrapuntal--different lines back and forth between the guitar and the piano. We did it sort of one section at a time. And it was very fun for me to see how it evolved.

JazzReview: It was very different. It still has your touch to it. But it is very different than some of the other songs you did in the past.

Your group has done several remarkable albums over the years. Each album has its own personality even though your group has a signature fingerprint. How do you see this album differing from your other great works?

Bob James: I guess that question is always the hardest one to answer. Not wanting to sound like a cop-out, I try to not draw any conclusions about our work.

Our style or our approach in creating new music on our records...most of the time we are doing original compositions so they are unknown when we start-none of us know what’s really going to happen anyway. So, we pour our creative energy into that process and this project is not really an exception to that.

When we get to the end of it, we’re burned out. Speaking for myself, I’ve heard those songs hundreds of times by the time we are finished and I’m trying to milk every nuance out of the piece and make a statement. When it gets released on the CD, then it’s too late to do anything about it, and it has a permanent life of its own. At that point, we can’t fix it so I pour everything into it before release.

We all try to give 100%. Sometimes I just don’t even like to listen to it after that. I’ve also had some fun going back and listening to stuff we did eight or ten years earlier. It’s fun because I don’t quite remember all the gory details of what went into it. And finally, I get to just listen to it as a piece of music and enjoy it.

At this point, I couldn’t tell you what is different about this album other than we were trying to march straight ahead and put everything into it.

JazzReview: And, you did. I love it.

What would you like your fans to know about you or your group? Or, is there anything we didn’t cover you would like your fans to know?

Bob James: I’m going to China to play with a group of young Chinese musicians for a live performance of my album Angels of Shangai. We’ve performed this music all over Asia, and finally we’ll return to China to perform it. We’ve played in Thailand, Korea and Japan and Indonesia, but the Chinese-influenced music we’ve never performed in China. We were finally able to schedule a performance in Hong Kong and one in Chiang Hi to try and bring the project full circle, and I’m greatly looking forward to that.

JazzReview: Do you ever get amazed? Do you ever stop in one spot long enough to think, "My gosh. I can’t believe this is me?"

Bob James: Yeah. On that subject, I can’t believe how lucky I am. I think that comes to mind the most-that I have a chance to work with such phenomenal musicians and a very loyal audience that makes us feel good when we come out to perform. I just hope to keep doing it for a long time.

JazzReview: I’ve watched your videos and listened to your music and I noticed over the years, nothing of your enthusiasm has been lost. You have matured in your craft and just continue to add more greatness.

Do you ever wonder, "I’ve already done everything so where do I go from here? So now what?"

Bob James: There are definitely periods of time when the page is blank. We resist setting out to do a theme sort of album-except for the year we did a Christmas album. Other than that, we always set out to just let our own four creative minds have free range.

We don’t always communicate with each other about where we’re going with our own individual songs. It’s when we get into the studio when we feel the song is taking on a certain style or direction.

On our album Heartfelt, a few years ago, we had a very loose, but a little bit of a plan to see if we could explore the idea of creating in the studio, in terms of the four of us composing music together, as opposed to individually. We spent many days coming into the studio with nothing.

Then we just started improvising and seeing where it would take us. I personally enjoyed that a lot. And I would like more of that in the future. It’s different than composing at home, by yourself, in your own little woodshop. You can bring in an idea you might feel insecure about-and sometimes throw out an idea and one of the others will build on it. They might build a dialogue on it. It can be much more confidence building.

Especially with Nathan who I think is one of our biggest, most positive cheerleaders in the group. He brings out the best in all of us because he seems to never run out of that enthusiasm and energy.

JazzReview: Yes. It’s exciting. Is there anything else you would like your fans to know about?

Bob James: I think we’ve covered everything. It’s good to leave a little mystique so people have something to explore.

JazzReview: Thank you so much for this interview.

Like fine wine, this group has continuously changed, matured and is well-seasoned, always leaving the listener wanting more. It is only natural their newest release is called Energy. It seems after ten albums, the group would get tired, but they are still revved up and taking excitement with them as they spread Energy around the world.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Fourplay
  • Subtitle: ENERGY
Login to post comments