Fourplay’s jazz masters finally record their long-awaited duo project
Although keyboardist Bob James and bassist Nathan East have anchored the jazz supergroup Fourplay for 25 years, they’ve wanted to record an album of their own for years—but the timing was never quite right. “Because of our schedules we just couldn’t find the time,” says James. But finally they did—and with Yamaha Entertainment Group executive Chris Gero producing, the jazz wizards created The New Cool—an album that marks a distinct departure from Fourplay. “We’ve been stuck with the term smooth jazz,” James explains, “and we wanted to signal that we’re going in a different direction, wherever our hearts take us.”
What’s the genesis of the record?
The idea of doing the project started very small. Nathan and I were involved in a project I was doing with Korean guitarist Jack Lee. During those sessions I had this arrangement I’d been experimenting with, and I started playing it with Nathan. We locked in together in an instinctive way, and we were fascinated with it. As we kept living with this one song, both of us began to say maybe we should do a project with the same kind of attitude.
What sound were you going for?
We wanted it to represent our own way of making music and didn’t want to make any rules. If a piece suddenly started to cry out for percussion, sure. But we wanted to stay with our original goal, which was to have it be a dialogue between Nathan and me. One thing that was great was that Chris Gero is very much a purist about using real sounds—even though he represents Yamaha and they make synthesizers and all this great digital stuff, he wanted our music to have real instruments. I could do a pretty good job of simulating the orchestra but he said no—he wanted real people.
Do you remember the first time you played together?
I was a New York guy and he was an L.A. guy, and it was during the era—25 years ago—when there was definitely a big difference in the approach and attitude between the coasts. A lot of the guys I knew well in New York had an aloofness and sometimes coldness: You play the music, you get the job done, but there’s not a lot of camaraderie. When I first played with Nathan, he had this natural smile on his face and he was very positive and not afraid to be complimentary.
Why cover Willie Nelson’s “Crazy”?
It just sort of came together in a magical, unpredictable way. It’s a tribute to my uncle, Bill McElhiney, a trumpeter and arranger who lived in Nashville. He worked with Patsy Cline, who had a big hit with “Crazy.” Nathan and I had an instrumental version we liked, but it was feeling naked. It’s not a song that you would immediately think of as a jazz instrumental piece—it has such a specific history as a country-pop song. I knew the song had meat and was interesting, but I kept trying to find a groove or something unique about it.
Chris asked if we’d like his friend Vince Gill to sing on it, and Vince said yes. We had to change it around though, because our version wasn’t in his key.
Fourplay’s been together for 25 years. How does that feel?
It’s scary to think that! I can still recall when we started the group, wondering if we’d have any longevity at all. A big part of the reason why we were able to stick around was the success of our first record. That sort of forced us into thinking that we were an actual group.