When Fourplay released their first album in 1991, there was little doubt that the term “supergroup” was applicable. By that time, keyboardist Bob James had been recording hit albums for nearly two decades, had played a major role in creating the sound that would come to be known as smooth jazz, and had contributed the memorable theme song for the sitcom Taxi. Guitarist Lee Ritenour could boast a fifteen-year career as a leader, increasingly fusing jazz with pop music. And drummer Harvey Mason had been a member of Herbie Hancock’s ground-breaking Headhunters band and played with a who’s who of jazz greats besides releasing a string of funky albums under his own name in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on Arista Records.
Which just left bassist Nathan East, who didn’t yet have a single recording under his own name – and still didn’t in 2012, when Fourplay released its twelfth studio album, Esprit de Four. But for those who pay attention to liner notes, it was clear that East had earned his place in this heavy-hitting quartet. One of the most in-demand session musicians of the last three decades, East has contributed to countless hit records, including songs and albums by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Elton John, George Harrison, Anita Baker, Babyface, and B.B. King. He’s been an integral part of Eric Clapton’s sound since 1984, recording and touring with the legendary guitarist, and wrote the music for Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s 1984 hit “Easy Lover.” This year, he contributed the bassline for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and performed the song with the robotic duo at the Grammys.
When Fourplay arrives at the Keswick on Wednesday, it will be the first time the band has played in the Philly area since East finally joined his bandmates as a recording artist in his own right, with the release of Nathan East earlier this year. The belated debut is a grab bag of styles performed by a band of top L.A. session musicians with favors returned by a number of artists East has anchored over the years, including Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, and Bob James. Smooth jazz is followed by a funk tune, a Stevie Wonder cover or two, a gauzy ballad, a straightahead bop number, a sunny bossa nova, or a rousing, string-laden solo bass rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
“I programmed the album as if I was programming my iPod, where you get a little bit of this and a bit of that,” East says. “I wanted it to be something that could stand up to repeat listenings, with the fingerprints of the people I’ve been working with.”
East says that the reason it’s taken him so long to finally put out his own CD is simply the obvious fact that he’s been too busy. How many musicians, after all, can boast of a discography that includes Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” Beyoncé’s “Listen,” Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” and Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” just to name a select few. Besides, he’s not the type to chase after the spotlight. “For me, it’s always been exciting to know that you’re part of this big picture, to know that you’re a part of the fabric of music,” East says. “My ego doesn’t really make me wish I was in the front of that. Sometimes if it’s a great record I’ll wish I wrote it, but most times I just enjoy the fact that I played a little bit of a role in this big puzzle called music.”