It could be argued that the cohesiveness that marks out super-group Fourplay from the crowd is, in part, tied to the offstage camaraderie between band members Harvey Mason, Bob James, Nathan East and Chuck Loeb. With the brand new album, ‘Let’s Touch The Sky’, this tight distinctive groove is again on display and it is interesting to ponder from where this obvious togetherness comes.
According to Mason, when the group isn’t performing they are enjoying what he calls ‘Fourplay dinners and hangs’. Described by Mason as ‘fun and stimulating’ these events allow them to talk about everything from music to current events and in so doing have created a very special bond.
For those who have not been keeping score, Fourplay has been making great music for the last twenty years. For this latest collection, ‘Let’s Touch the Sky’, the group is joined by its newest member, Chuck Loeb, whose transition into the group appears to have been seamless. That distinctive Fourplay sound is there throughout but what is interesting is that it never comes across as yesterday’s leftovers; every tune is refreshing and delightful.
Over its extensive discography Fourplay has featured some of the best vocalists around and this time is no exception. Former American Idol winner Rueben Studdard steps up for the Teddy Pendergrass classic ‘Love TKO’ while the captivating Anita Baker adds some magic to the sultry ‘You’re My Thrill’.
The heavenly melodies of the album’s title track totally mesmerize the soul. Written by Bob James its beautiful chord progressions which float effortlessly upon James’ own piano riffs make this is a truly beguiling way to open the CD.
‘3rd Degree’ is a funky little number which has been brought to the table by newcomer Chuck Loeb. Its solid beat serves as the musical equivalent to that fresh cup of coffee you crave to start your morning and as such should be relied upon to provide the perfect ‘pick-me-up’. In similar mode is another Chuck Loeb tune, ‘Above and Beyond’, which my five year old summed up best when she described it as a "happy song". With a joyful spirit coupled with nifty guitar riffs this is a track that makes you want to get up and dance your troubles away.
When it comes to ballads Fourplay is invariably on the money and they are in predictably top form with the Harvey Mason penned ‘More Than a Dream’ and the Nathan East composition ‘I’ll Be Loving You’. Both contrast delightfully with the laid-back but tropically inclined ‘Pineapple Getaway’ that will encourage you to head to the islands and just kick back. Elsewhere Bob James provides some soothing balm with his ‘Gentle Giant (For Hank)’ while Nathan East’s gorgeous whispering scats prove to be a feature of the flavorful ‘A Night in Rio’.
Even before the launch of ‘Let’s Touch The Sky’ the members of Fourplay were busy getting ready for a tour to China. Luckily for us, we were able to steal some time with Harvey Mason and Nathan East for this interview. Not surprisingly the conversation was not only about the new album but also the reasons why, as a unit, they gel so well together.
JazzReview: This is yet another awesome CD. I realize that it has some new and refreshing beats but there is still an underlying signature Fourplay sound. How do you manage to pull that off?
Harvey Mason: Well first I want to thank you for your musical knowledge and for noticing that. We try to push the envelope with our music and never set out to copy our own sound. We make music that comes from the heart because that’s what is going to last.
JazzReview: How did this compilation come together for you guys?
Harvey Mason: We are all equal partners in the group so every member participates in writing and producing. Our aim is to record two songs from each member but first the composer must survive the nerve-racking Fourplay adjudication process. Once a song passes, and the band is in the studio, the members collectively begin to tweak it. I wish people could really see this part of the process. Imagine unselfish, non-ego driven ‘give and take’ with four master musicians. That's Fourplay. Those same qualities are present when you see Fourplay in concert!
JazzReview: Sounds like an exciting time. What do you think about the new album on a whole?
Harvey Mason: I sincerely love it. We really pushed the envelope on this one. It has a number of varied musical elements, memorable melodies, hypnotic, driving rhythms and transparent sophisticated harmonies. Take the tile track for example. It is a very romantic piece. Anita Baker's performance on the obscure standard ‘You're My Thrill’ is nothing short of amazing and conjures comparisons to vocal masters such as Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Anita really picked it apart, arrived at a fresh and exciting rendition, and was inspired by our arrangement.
JazzReview: What do you strive for in your music?
Harvey Mason: I strive to give my very best to each and every song and hope it satisfies a multitude of people. Music plays such an important role in the lives of people and we're constantly reminded of this as we travel the world. On a recent South African tour Nathan East didn't make the trip because of an achilles injury. The sold out audience just went ahead and sang Nathan’s vocal parts. When you experience something like that in a far away continent it really drives home the relevance of Fourplay’s music. Most definitely inspiring!
JazzReview: Impressive! I’m getting goose pimples just hearing about that South African performance. Chuck Loeb is the newest member to your group, have you ever worked with him before now?
Harvey Mason: I’ve been a fan of Chuck and played with him before. He is a perfect addition to the group. He too has always been a fan of the band and he brings new energy to the fold.
Nathan East: I've only worked with Chuck on one occasion. Almost 30 years ago in New York on a recording session for Patrick Williams big band project. I am happy to have him in the band because he is a great contributor as a player, writer and producer.
JazzReview: What are your favorite songs on the CD?
Harvey Mason: I love all the songs but if I had to pick a favorite I'd have to say Bob's ‘Let’s Touch the Sky’. The musical content and mood perfectly set up the CD. I'm also a huge Bob James fan. We've been musical and personal friends for over 30 years.
Nathan East: I also love all the songs on the new album. Every single one I’m fond of for different reasons. It was difficult to sequence the record for that very reason. When I'm showing my friends our new record ‘Let’s Touch the Sky’ is the first of the songs I play so that must be my favorite.
JazzReview: Do you guys plan on touring? How long would the tour last?
Harvey Mason: We are leaving for China soon and also have a few US dates as well. We will be off for Christmas and then pick up some shows until the end of next summer.
JazzReview: Sounds very hectic, how do you balance your professional life with your life with the family?
Harvey Mason: Well on the Shanghai trip my wife will be going along. She usually is able to make some of the trips. My life is like an elongated vacation. So very cool!
Nathan East: Fortunately, it’s not as if I work a ‘nine to five’ job where I would only be home in the mornings and evenings. Sometimes our kids go along with us on tour. Whenever it’s possible we have the family attend so they can see what we do when we're away from them and they love it. The way I schedule my sessions and tours I have a lot of time with the family and I am able to make the most of my kids’ events.
JazzReview: Aside from playing together, are you all really good friends? How is it on the social side for you guys getting together?
Harvey Mason: We hang out when we're traveling. We occasionally go to a member's home for BBQ if in their hometown. My favorite memory was a Barbados concert where wives and some kids stayed for a week of fun and frolicking.
Nathan East: We've known each other for so many years that we have developed deep friendships.
JazzReview: Are you guys working on any music now? Solo projects perhaps?
Harvey Mason: I’m currently editing two Harvey Mason solo projects, I already have eight. Also I am performing on the new Tyler Perry movie, "For Colored Girls" and playing on the upcoming blockbuster "Monte Carlo." I’m also planning for December Fourplay concerts with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo. I'm looking forward to this collaboration as Fourplay’s music is perfect for such a marriage.
Nathan East: Right now I’m producing and writing for Anita Baker’s new CD. As you know she's a guest on our new Fouplay project. After working with Anita for so many years I was honored when she asked me to produce her. I’ve also been working on the tracks that Michael Jackson was recording before he died. I just taped a new PBS Special with David Foster that will feature lots of great artists we've worked with over the years like Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Seal, and Earth Wind & Fire.
JazzReview: Tell us more about the Michael Jackson project.
Nathan East: With the MJ project, I’m working with different producers and arrangers, including Burt Bacharach, to add music to the vocals that Michael laid down before he passed away. When you hear his voice, you know that his music will live forever.
JazzReview: When might the MJ project be released?
Nathan East: Probably sometime next year.
JazzReview: Great! Nathan, you’ve been doing a lot of singing on the tracks over the years, any chance of you recording a solo album?
Nathan East: I'd love to make an album of my own and soon! I've been approached by a couple of labels and have some songs that I have been working on already.
JazzReview: Would you keep a jazz format?
Nathan East: Yes because I’m comfortable with it, but I would also like to crossover into a bit of R&B as well.
JazzReview: Have any of your kids followed in your musical footsteps?
Harvey Mason: My daughter actually sings on this new CD. She sings a duet with Nathan on ‘I’ll Be Loving You’. She has also sung on previous records. My son, Harvey J. Mason is one of today's top producers with credits too numerous to name but nearly every contemporary vocalist has been produced by him.
Nathan East: Both of my twins (boy and girl) play piano and my son has picked up the bass and guitar. I discovered that he had perfect pitch when he was five years old. You can play any chords or notes on the piano and he can tell you exactly what they are. It's amazing!
Amazing is an apt word when summing up the artistry of Fourplay. Here’s to the next twenty years.