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May 2014

While the Cats are Away

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Four of the most amazing musicians of our time join forces every couple of years to form the band, FourPlay. Bob James, Larry Carlton, Nathan East and Harvey Mason are all individual jazz icons and when they get together the level of musicianship is phenomenal. I have the great fortune to be the bass and guitar tech for this group and every gig is extraordinary, in every sense of the word.

Over the last few years the group has become quite a family. The same crew of four has toured with the band, so we have really honed the setup to the point where “the guys” don’t need to even show up for soundcheck anymore. The musicians usually welcome this because it gives them time to rest, have a nice dinner, and get focused on the performance. We have all the tones, levels, monitor requirements, and stage plot down to a science.

But it gets even cooler – all four crew members play music at a professional level. Coincidentally, our main instruments happen to be the same four that Bob, Larry, Nathan, and Harvey play. Sonny Abelardo (Tour Manager and Lighting Designer extraordinaire) is a killer drummer. Ken Freeman (FOH and Recording Engineer) has toured extensively and even done Broadway gigs on bass. Kris Umezawa (Monitor Engineer for David Byrne, Cyndie Lauper, Rufus Wainwright, Interpol, Brazilian Girls, etc.) is a jazz pianist and could do just that for a living. I play respectable jazz guitar and sing. Not only do we know the setup – we know the songs. We hear them night after night and seem to have absorbed them throughout the years.

On a tour in Japan a couple of years ago we were going through our normal setup before the show and discovered that we all could play the opening number; we soon began a routine of dialing in the monitors and front of house with the local engineers while we played on stage. This is really a mindbender for anyone attending soundcheck. Kris is young and has an Asian heritage. Ken is Caucasian. Sonny also has an Asian heritage. But from a few hundred yards away, I could look a little like Larry Carlton. During the main section of the opener (not the improvising) we sound exactly like the band. We’re using their equipment and virtually play the song note for note. The looks on peoples’ faces as they try to reconcile what they hear with what they see are hilarious. It sort of takes Elvis impersonation to a different level.

FourPlay ended their Japanese tour in Sapporo last year and we had a day off in a great hotel before our last show. The guys were well rested and surprisingly decided to come to soundcheck. They walked in to catch us in the act of impersonation and just flipped. They all knew we could play, but weren’t aware that we could play their stuff. Each had a different reaction: Harvey wanted Sonny to show him a couple of patterns he was playing on Harv’s kit; Nate was smiling big, as he often does, and loved hearing what his rig sounded like from the audience; Larry was laughing his tail off just from the sight of a different looking FourPlay; Bob immediately got out his video camera and captured the whole thing. On a personal level, it was a bit unnerving to perform in front of the guys, but all in all it was a bonding experience that provided a much-needed moment of hilarity for everyone.

On our way back to the hotel after the show that night, Bob presented us with DVDs of our performance. Not only is Bob an incredible piano player and visual artist, he is a genius in the technical world of computer programs like Finale and Photoshop. He had gone back to his room after soundcheck, uploaded the video from his camera, and proceeded to edit, title, add credits, and burn DVDs for us. But best of all was the new name for our little band of humble crew members printed in large letters on the DVD cover: FourSkin. Sure, a couple of us are losing our hair and any of us could get cut at a moment’s notice, but FourSkin? In reality, we all found it quite endearing and to this day still remain FourSkin. Go ahead and let the symbolism run. You’d be surprised at what you come up with.

I guess the moral (or immoral, as it is) of the story is this: if you can play on equipment owned by jazz greats in a totally professional environment and not get in any trouble, do it! And if you are a jazz great, be aware that while the cats are away, the techs will play.


Rick Wheeler
Rick Wheeler currently works as Larry Carlton’s guitar tech and front of house engineer. He is also an accomplished jazz guitarist, vocalist, and educator. You can contact Rick at rickwheeler@hughes.net

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