Whether the participants like it or not, these two new albums are inextricably related. Guitarist Lee Ritenour, one of the founding members (with keyboardist Bob James, drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Nathan East) of the all-star band Fourplay, left the group last year to take on the responsibility of running his own label, ie Records. He was replaced by another longtime studio veteran, guitarist Larry Carlton. "This Is Love" is Ritenour's first outing for his own company, and "4" is the maiden issue from the newly constituted Fourplay.
It's probably not surprising that both albums take a similar tack, balancing jazz tracks with patently market-oriented pop numbers. Given the success the formula has had in the smooth jazz field for the last couple of decades, don't expect it to change any time soon.
In Ritenour's case, however, once the obligatory pop numbers are out of the way, the album moves into consistently attractive territory--even though the material is remarkably far-ranging. Ritenour delivers some of his most compelling solo work in renderings of two Sonny Rollins tunes: a grooving romp through "Alfie's Theme" and an unusually crafted take on "Street Runner" (with solid tenor saxophone soloing from Bill Evans, and a recap of "Alfie's Theme"). There is a marvelously offbeat rendering of Randy Newman's "Baltimore," with a quirky arrangement by Frank Becker, and some lovely Ritenour acoustic playing on the lovely "Dream Walk."
Finally, there is a completely unexpected but superb rendering of Faure's "Pavane," performed by the Ritenour Quartet in an enveloping orchestral texture (produced, amazingly, by samplers and synthesizers) provided by arranger-composer Becker.
Set aside the pop tracks and "This Is Love" is one of Ritenour's finest efforts, and an impressive debut on his own record label.
"4" also puts its crossover ambitions up front with three forgettable variations on the smooth jazz style in the first three tracks. The band's real chops--and they have plenty--don't really surface until Mason's "Rio Rush," when each of the players finally stretches out. East proffers some entertaining scat singing on "Piece of My Heart" (not the Janis Joplin version), and the final three tracks--an easy-grooving "Slow Slide," the rhythmically quirky "Vest Pocket" and Carlton's aptly titled "Swamp Jazz"--reveal, however briefly, the essential skills of this all-star ensemble.
James has noted on several occasions that he feels the contemporary style he has been writing and performing for the past few decades is where jazz is, right now. The other players presumably agree. Given the successes they have had, one can understand the point of view, and accept the fact that questions relating to any of the players' long-ago mainstream skills are largely irrelevant.
So the real question about "4" is how successfully it meets the criteria of the style that the Fourplay musicians have been laying down for so many years. And from that perspective alone, the album has a surprisingly low level of intensity--far more laid-back, far more generally passive than Fourplay has performed in the past.
Does the replacement of Ritenour by Carlton make the difference? Not at all. Carlton's blues-based style doesn't have quite the articulate, forward momentum of Ritenour's more mainstream playing. But the blues can be urgent, too, and as Carlton shows here and there, he is fully capable of providing his share of rhythmic urgency. The problem is that neither he nor the other members of Fourplay do it often enough this time out.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).