FOURPLAY: ‘Energy’ (Label: Heads Up)

FOURPLAY: 'Energy'

The smooth jazz supergroup comprising keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Larry Carlton, bass player Nathan East and sticks man Harvey Mason is back with its debut offering for the Heads Up label. There’s no doubting the musical credentials of all four veteran musicians – who rose to fame in the 1970s during the jazz-fusion explosion – but there’s also no question that the music on this album actually amounts to less than the sum of its component parts. By that, I mean that given the instrumental prowess of this quartet and the potency of their individual talents, this album is the musical equivalent of treading water – ironically, a minimum of energy seems to be expended here, with James, Carlton and co content to stay within a narrow comfort zone that doesn’t require a lot of thought, effort or creativity on their part. It’s music made on automatic pilot. But then why shouldn’t it be thus? After all, the parameters of smooth jazz are very limited any way and don’t demand – God forbid! – that musical barriers should be broken, bruised or dissolved. So, with that in mind, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Fourplay’s ultra-polite brand of undemanding jazz-lite and certainly, the band’s legion of fans will lap this release up, just as they have done with the outfit’s previous ten albums. Having said that, this new 10-track set is mellower and much less memorable than previous efforts – in fact, the first few tracks breeze by without leaving any great impression except that of establishing a seductive nocturnal ambience. A touch of exoticism is introduced via ‘Cape Town,’ but with its somewhat limp Nathan East vocal, it’s too wimpy to make any impact. Things pick up, though, halfway through the set with a perky Bob James’ number, ‘The Yes Club,’ featuring the composer’s trademark crystalline acoustic piano and some fine guitar work from Larry Carlton. A guest vocal spot by the lovely bassist-turned-singer Esperanza Spalding – check out her superb new album, ‘Esperanza,’ also on Heads Up – on ‘Prelude For Lovers’ is also a highlight as is Larry Carlton’s ‘Comfort Zone,’ a mid-tempo blues featuring some tasteful guitar passages. Even better is the closer, ‘Sebastian’ – penned by the dependable Bob James, it melds quasi-classical music (think J.S. Bach) with jazz and pop in a wholly convincing way that recalls the keyboard player’s classic pieces for CTI in the early ’70s. There are some good moments here but overall, the musical content of ‘Energy’ is largely at odds with its title and the album, as a result, disappoints.
(CW) 3/5