It's a fine line between the contemporary jazz groups like the Yellowjackets make and the more programmatic smooth variety. Approachable grooves can define both spaces, but one expects greater emphasis on interaction and performance from bands that distance themselves from smooth jazz, where it seems to be all about avoiding confrontation and serving best as background music. San Francisco-based Times 4 veer a little closer to the smooth stuff than their Yellowjackets counterparts, but there's enough energy to keep them on the right side of the fence.
Relations is the quartet's second release, and it's hard to ignore the Yellowjackets references. The members of Times 4 don't demonstrate the same degree of virtuosity or stylistic breadth as the Yellowjackets' members have proven both inside and outside the confines of that group. But that doesn't mean they're not strong players, tackling material that collects jazz harmonies, softened urban rhythms, strong melodies and, at times, a hint of fire that suggests the group may be capable of more than they let on.
While Times 4 is a relatively recent collaboration, there's shared history between different members of the group that goes as far back as their teens. Listening to drummer Maurice Miles and bassist Kevin Lofton, that comes as no surprise. They work together hand in glove and, regardless of the tempo, bring some funk to everything they do. Lofton's deep tone and percussive slaps provide an anchor, letting Miles occasionally play around with displaced rhythms in Dennis Chambers-like fashion, albeit with less powerful delivery.
Despite Times 4's easygoing approach, there's enough fire to make the propulsive 7/4 funk of "Hericane simmer, with keyboardist Greg Sankovich and saxophonist Lincoln Adler doubling up for its cyclical theme. Miles' hip hop-informed beat on "M.O. suggests it may actually be possible to move your feet in 5/4. There are traces of Latin and soul on the gentle sway of "Mojito, and the up-tempo "Cell Phone cooks with an affable, Crusaders-like intensity.
Relations is the kind of genre-straddling disc that is approachable enough (and, to its detriment, easy enough to relegate to the background) to appeal to smooth jazz fans, while being substantial enough for fans of contemporary jazz who prefer their music to take them somewhere without challenging them along the way. There's no denying that everyone can play, but on Relations one wishesif only now and thenthat they'd let their hair down a bit more and kick things up a few notches.
Personnel: Lincoln Adler: saxophone; Greg Sankovich: keyboards; Kevin Lofton: electric bass; Maurice Miles: drums.