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The Sky's The Limit

05 NOV 10 JONATHAN WIDRAN

Heading into their third decade of making multi-faceted recordings that perfectly blend poppy accessibility, rhythmic R&B and colorful "real jazz" improvisations, the all-star supergroup Fourplay issues a highfalutin' challenge to their listeners on their second Heads Up date Let's Touch The Sky.

Following in the formidable footsteps of founding guitarist Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton (who departs after 12 years) is cool new co-pilot Chuck Loeb, whose expansive acoustic and electric guitar resume includes everyone from Stan Getz to Steps Ahead and a lengthy solo catalog. Loeb's melodically fluid, deep grooving instincts make an immediate impact on his first two compositions recorded by the band. The lively, syncopated funk jam "Third Degree" rolls on the guitarist's percussive melody but also includes keyboardist Bob James' energetic solos and harmony lines. "Above And Beyond" begins with an ambient-rich, Methenyesque flow before reminding us that Loeb is a master at explosive, infectious pop-jazz.

Purists who may scoff at Fourplay's popularity among contemporary jazz enthusiasts will find deeper substance on James' elegant, light swing tribute to his recently departed influence Hank Jones, "Gentle Giant," whose wistful melody eases over bassist Nathan East's laid back rhythms and drummer Harvey Mason's hi-hat -- and doubles nicely with Loeb's Wes Montgomery-flavored electric lines.

Another deeper excursion is the moody, slow simmering straight ahead quartet piece "Golden Faders," James' ode to longtime Fourplay engineer Ken Freeman. East's vocals on his breezy ballad "I'll Still Be Loving You" are sweet, but elsewhere Fourplay keeps its tradition of featuring great R&B singers going with Ruben Studdard digging into Teddy Pendergrass' "Love TKO" and Anita Baker channeling Billie Holiday on "You're My Thrill." The group is on tour now, so check them out.