For Fourplay, it's all a numbers game. 2011 marks the band's 20th anniversary, Let's Touch the Sky is their 12th album, and "new guy," Chuck Loeb is both Fourplay's third personnel change and third guitarist replacing Larry Carlton, who stepped in for Lee Ritenour in 1998.
Personnel changes in long-established bands happen when a disgruntled member bolts over the dreaded "creative differences" or out of necessity, as when Carlton decided to return to his solo career. When it was Carlton's turn as the new guy on 4 (Warner Bros., 1998), there was a consistency in sound between his playing and Ritenour's. It wasn't until 2002's Heartfelt (Bluebird) that Carlton seemed to truly settle in as an equal partner with keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason.
Loeb has the advantage of appearing on several of James' solo albums, and that familiarity serves him well, as his guitar is featured early on his own "3rd Degree." Loeb's style meshes well with the signature Fourplay radio friendly tunes, but his playing is noticeably funkier than Carlton, and his familiarity with James would seem to indicate his period of adjustment into this supergroup will be a relatively quick one.
The introduction of new blood surprises on Let's Touch the Sky, with "Golden Faders" being seven minutes worth of swinging and sizzling, as if the band was just enjoying jamming too much to stop. James dedicates "Gentle Giant" to the great Hank Jones, who passed away in May, 2010, and is driven by James, with an unexpected assist from East on acoustic bass.
More familiar are the East vocal showcase, "I'll Still Be Lovin' You," while a subtle contribution from Anita Baker makes "You're My Thrill" gently sparkle like sunlight on water. Usually it's just asking for trouble to even try to cover an R&B classic like "Love TKO," that weaker singers than Teddy Pendergrass fear to even attempt; but American Idol winner Ruben Studdard's version honors the original while updating it. It's one of the bold and unexpected surprises of Let's Touch the Sky.
Changes in personnel can be leading indicators of a band reaching the end of the line. Not this time. If anything James, Mason and East seem invigorated by their new playmate. Loeb is a perfect fit, and with his addition to the group as both a composer and player, Fourplay is well situated to continue on both artistically and commercially as a force with which to be reckoned.
Track Listing: Let's Touch the Sky; 3rd Degree; More Than A Dream; Pineapple Getaway; I'll Still Be Lovin' You; Gentle Giant (for Hank); A Night in Rio; Love TKO; Above and Beyond; Golden Faders; You're My Thrill.
Personnel: Bob James: keyboards; Nathan East: bass and vocals; Chuck Loeb: guitars; Harvey Mason: drums and percussion; Ruben Studdard: vocals (8); Anita Baker: vocals (11).