One of the best-selling bands grouped under “jazz” in the CD racks, Fourplay has turned a hefty profit by trafficking in unexceptional dance grooves and contemporary harmonic blandness. But to summarily dismiss the quartet forces you to deny the undeniable musicianship of its members–and the fact that they make this form and format more listenable than practically anyone else. Much of the credit goes to pianist Bob James, a musical polymath of high order. James spent four years as Sarah Vaughan’s musical director (before writing the hit theme song for TV’s Taxi), and his recordings range from respectable readings of Bach to the slew of jazz and pop albums he produced in the 70s to a recent acoustic-piano trio album that finds him reexploring his early interest in postbop improvisation. The prolific guitarist Lee Ritenour–long known primarily for his ability to play well enough in a variety of derivative modern styles–really comes into his own in Fourplay with a strong, singing sound; his solos have a little more bite and a lot more craft than you’d expect. The crackerjack rhythm team of bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason (a veteran of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and subsequent funk outfits) can play rings around the rhythms to which this idiom usually restricts itself, and their abilities and experience breathe life into the cliches. I hate to admit that you can find merit in any of what the marketing liars call “smooth jazz,” but Fourplay provides some of the grist that most of this stuff lacks. Sunday, 7:30 PM, Skyline Stage, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand; 525-7793 or 559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of Fourplay by James Minchin.