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Q & A with Jazz Group FOURPLAY

For more than 20 years, the world-renowned jazz group Fourplay has set the benchmark for contemporary jazz. From their eponymously titled debut in 1991, to their 2012 Heads Up release, Esprit du Four, pianist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Chuck Loeb have continued to innovate and charm listeners with their precise, dynamic instrumental jazz/pop sound. On record and on stage, their tasty grooves and virtuosity remain impressive.

In advance of Fourplay’s annual appearance in Philadelphia on June 25 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA,I asked two of these world-class musicians, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason, to reflect on their careers and their own recently releases solo projects.

Nathan East (Yamaha Entertainment Group) is the bassist’s long-awaited, self-titled debut from the musician, a bassist with many years in the business with his band Fourplay, along with Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson and his collaboration with Daft Punk. Yep, that’s East playing on the band’s 2013 Grammy-winning Get Lucky. In addition to offering plenty of his sinuous bass playing, the album is an eclectic gem that showcases East as a composer and singer, plus a little help from his friends—Michael McDonald, Sara Bareilles, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Bob James.

Drummer Harvey Mason has been a go-to studio musician since the ‘70s, playing on nearly all of Bob James’ early records on the CTI label and collaborations with Earl Klugh. His beats and brushwork can be heard on hundreds of pop hits and jazz recordings, including his own esteemed, but sporadic solo work. With humility, grace and plenty of groove, Mason’s album, Chameleon (Concord Records), is a solid, career-defining effort that combines the drummer’s potent chops and experience leading a band comprised of the hottest young jazz musicians on the scene.

Here, drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Nathan East reflect on their careers and solo projects.

Bewsey: Nathan, congratulations on the new album. I love that you kick it off with a re-imagined version of your original tune, “101 Eastbound.”

East: Thanks. "101 Eastbound" has taken on a new direction in the 20-plus years that we’ve been playing it on the road with Fourplay. I wanted to celebrate Fourplay with this version and acknowledge that it was recorded in the exact studio [Ocean Way Recording Studio] where we gave birth to our first Fourplay album 23 years ago.


Bewsey: What were some of the records you grew up with that influenced you?

East: My taste in music is pretty eclectic. I grew up listening to everything from West Montgomery to Earth Wind and Fire, The Beatles to Herbie Hancock. Tower Power’s Back to Oakland was one of those albums that got heavy rotation on my record player and Rocco Prestia really influenced me with his brilliant bass work. Weather Report’s Heavy Weather was another one that turned my head around, especially with the genius bass work by Jaco Pastorius. I really loved the sounds of Philadelphia and groups like The Spinners and Stylistics and all those Gamble & Huff productions and classic Thom Bell arrangements. The musical breeding ground was so fertile back in the ‘70s; it’s really amazing how much great music we had access to.

Bewsey: I’ve enjoyed your music for over 20 years and attended Fourplay performances at the Keswick Theatre several times. You have a connection to Philly, don’t you?  

East: Well, Philadelphia being my birthplace for starters makes for a pretty special connection. I receive so much love and support from my Philly family when we play there it’s amazing—half the Keswick Theatre is filled with my cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, extended family. I love it.

Bewsey: Harvey, your projects are very diverse, like Ratamacue, which is keyed in to a gentle storm side of jazz and With All My Heart, your straight-ahead trio CD. Chameleon feels like a perfect Harvey Mason gig—it has musical elements that remind me of Fourplay, yet the originals and new arrangement of classic material is edgier. How did your thinking evolve in terms of music selection and what you wanted to play?

Mason: Herbie Hancock formed Headhunters and recorded Chameleon back in 1973 with me, Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson and Bill Summers, but I never traveled with Herbie to perform the music live. Back in 2010, I went to Japan with my band that I called Chameleon. I took along Patrice Rushen and Jimmy Haslip and we played that Headhunters music and the audience went crazy. So I had an idea to record it and took it to Chris Dunn [A&R producer at Concord] who loved it. Then we got the idea of bringing in a new generation of players [bassist Ben Williams, keyboardist Kris Bowers, trumpeter Christian aTunde Adjuah, guitarist Matthew Stevens] and gave them the music and asked them to do the arrangements—original songs and older music. Took a year and a half to record.

Bewsey: Chameleon 2014 is strong and the new arrangement of the title track is killer. You sound positively juiced by the energy of the other players. Their style seems to dovetail well with your own natural groove. What can you say about their creativity?

Mason: Adding the company of the young guys was magical. They’re grabbing the torch and carrying it forward. They’re technically sound, conceptually sound, totally fresh —[with these guys] jazz is in great hands. They’re so respectful of what came before them and they study and learn that music and move it forward by doing their own thing.

Bewsey: Nathan, you sound at home whether you’re mixing it up with Fourplay, Eric Clapton or Daft Punk. Listening to your CD, I think all of these artists’ styles inform your record. You called in some favors with the guest musicians and vocalists. How many tunes did you record ultimately and was it tough to pare down those tracks?

East: I recorded 26 songs for my new CD, all songs that I love and have an associated story. The most challenging thing about the selection process was figuring out which songs were not going to make the album. It’s almost like [deciding] which children [you’re] going to leave behind. We went with the ones that we felt were a good musical balance of tempos and styles. Many of the remaining songs will be included on my second album, which I’m working on now. 

Bewsey: I don’t think you ever cut a less than great album. Plus, you get some amazing mainstream pop artists to collaborate with Fourplay.

East: We’ve enjoyed our collaboration from day one. Even prior to the first Fourplay CD the quartet got together and recorded Bob James’ Grand Piano Canyon album which was really the birth of Fourplay. We’re all producers and songwriters and have been in the business for a long time. I have to admit our standards are very high and we do strive to make good music.

Bewsey: Which Fourplay albums have a particular meaning for you or that you have a special fondness for?

East: They all have special moments and meaning for me, but I think our first three [Fourplay, Between the Sheets, and Elixir) really defined the Fourplay sound. With our most recent albums [Let’s Touch The Sky and Esprit de Four] Chuck Loeb’s contribution compositionally and musically has redefined our sound and brought some fun, new energy.

Mason: That’s too hard! They’re all good.

Bewsey: Harvey, after hundreds of sessions and live gigs, are you still learning? 

Mason: Always. I’m always learning and searching. When I get with the guys, each of us is asking, ‘Show me this. Show me that. Play it like that.’ I’m always brainstorming. With Bob James, man, you’d better be prepared and know your stuff.

Bewsey: Who are some of the younger cats on your radar? Jamire Williams?

Mason: I know Jamire. He’s good. I like Brian Blade, Kendrick Scott, Chris Dave. Man, I hate to leave anyone out. Wait—I also want to mention [Seattle drummer] Royce Shorter, Jr. as someone to watch.

Bewsey: Harvey, leading your new album with “Black Frost” will surprise a lot of your longtime fans. That tune is a classic written by Bob James and Grover Washington, Jr., but it’s definitely styled for today. Which brings me to tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington—he shreds that tune to pieces. Did you know him and his sound ahead of the studio date? 

Mason: I didn’t know him. He was highly recommended by friends. We weren’t sure at first, but that tune turned out great. He also plays on the title track.

Bewsey: What do you guys do outside of music?

East: I absolutely love spending time with my family, especially since I’m away a lot. I like photography and cameras and capturing images from around the world. I own an airplane and love the freedom that flying gives me. And I enjoy performing magic—I’m a member of the Magic Circle in London and the Academy of Magical Arts in the U.S.

Mason: Golf. I’m a big golf guy.

Bewsey: Harvey, what’s your go-to chill out record?

Mason: Always Miles. And classical music.

Bewsey: Nathan, what’s coming up for you and Fourplay?

East: Fourplay will tour the U.S. and Japan this year and begin work on our next album. I’ll be working on my next solo album as well as putting a band together to do some touring. I look forward to seeing all my peeps at the Keswick!

This article is from the June 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.