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JAZZ REVIEW : Demure Fourplay Seldom Sparks

November 06, 1995|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They teased. They titillated. But the guys in the jazz super-group Fourplay never really delivered the goods when they played the Pantages Theatre on Saturday.

On paper, keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason seem capable of making the earth move as they collaborate. In practice, they take a polite tack, playing happy-faced themes against accessible rhythms, a come-on for demure solos suitably matched to the mood. Seldom do their improvisations generate any spark.

To its credit, Fourplay shows more class than most fusion bands. East is tasteful and melodic, alert to the volume and timbre of his play. Unlike most electric bassists of the day, he doesn't rely on heavy, thumb-pounded tones to create beat and rumble.

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Likewise, Mason has a reserved, understated way of drumming, paring the rhythm to a minimum, adding detail, rather than volume, when making a point.

But the faceless character of Fourplay's material seems to inhibit the foursome. While James and Ritenour found space to say something interesting in each solo, overall their efforts seemed as cool and calculated as a one-night stand. Even the Victor Feldman-Miles Davis standard, "Seven Steps to Heaven," was turned into a glossy exercise.

The night's only passion came when pop-singer Vesta joined the foursome. Her confident style, sometimes in tandem with East's vocal harmony, gave the music a focus that it otherwise didn't have.

And the soft material that she sang freed the band to play unabashedly in the pop-instrumental style.

Maybe we expect too much of this heavyweight collaboration. After all, do the solo recordings of James and Ritenour promise anything deeper than the kind of pleasant, feel-good sounds that Fourplay delivers?

Still, with this kind of hard-core lineup, you can't help but be disappointed with the group's soft-core sensibilities.

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