Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
The first time the members of Times 4 got together to play, says keyboardist Greg Sankovich, “We just hit the zone and ran flying from the get-go.”
Fast-forwarding seven years, Sankovich, soprano and tenor saxophonist Lincoln Adler, bassist Kevin Lofton, and drummer Maurice Miles continue reigniting those spontaneous jazz-meets-funk sparks every time they perform. The distinctive Times 4 sound, which, in the words of eJazzNews reviewer Glenn Astarita, “skirts that fuzzy space between radio-friendly contempo jazz and ballsy, in-the-pocket groove-laden motifs,” has made the quartet a favorite at clubs and festivals throughout its home base in the San Francisco Bay Area and points beyond.
The backbeat-anchored edge that has marked Times 4’s music since its inception remains evident on Eclipse, the group’s third CD, yet the disc represents a step up in the group’s musical evolution with its more carefully crafted original tunes and the clarity of the recorded sound. Many of the compositional collaborations on the two earlier CDs - 2004’s Seductivity and 2007’s Relations - were outgrowths of open-ended jams created on the bandstand. For Eclipse, the four musicians took their time coming up disc’s five collective compositions: the sultry “Crossroads,” the swing-overlaid “Did I Say that Out Loud?”, the funky, feel-good “FSJ,” the bass-and-drums- driven “Sine Language,” and the title track, which drummer Miles describes as being like “an emotional journey.” The haunting ballad “What They Don’t Tell You” was penned by Adler alone.
“Eclipse,” the saxophonist says, “is much more about the band’s refinement and coming into its own as a performing entity. After seven years of playing together, the communication between the members has become much stronger. There is a real unity in the way we support each other in both solos and ensemble playing.”
The CD also includes, for the first time on disc, the group playing non- original numbers. Both are jazz classics: “Eighty One,” written by Ron Carter and Miles Davis, and John Coltrane's “Naima.” “We just did them Times 4’s way,” says Miles.
The eight selections on the CD also benefit from the sonic excellence of having been recorded at the legendary Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. Besides allowing for better sound separation between the instruments, the facility afforded Sankovich the opportunity to utilize several of its vintage, well-maintained keyboard instruments: a Hammond B-3 organ, a Fender-Rhodes electric piano, and an acoustic grand piano that had once been played by the great Bill Evans. “I kissed it first,” Sankovich quips about playing the grand.
Coming up with a simple tag to categorize Times 4’s style isn’t easy. Miles calls it “contemporary with an edge.” Bassist Lofton says it’s “a nice hybrid of cerebral jazz with more of a backbeat.” Sankovich describes it as “funk meets jazz, peppered with hip-hop and soul.”
“Times 4 has ended up between genres,” Adler observes. “Because we just decided to play the music that comes from our hearts, we didn’t turn on the style filter when it comes to composing, so there’s funk, there’s jazz, and there’s a lot of improvisation. I’ve always been a bit frustrated with the urge to classify music by style. My favorite mixes will go from jazz to classical to Afro-Cuban to R&B to pop to African to tango to lots of things in between.”
“It’s a Bay Area concoction,” adds Sankovich.
Indeed, Times 4 is made up of two sets of longtime friends and musical associates from opposite ends of the San Francisco Bay. Adler and Sankovich are from the Berkeley area. Lofton and Miles grew up in San Jose. The fact that the saxophonist and keyboardist both had extensive formal training, while the bassist and drummer are self-taught, has much to do with the group’s unique sound, Lofton feels.
Adler began playing various instruments at age five, focusing on clarinet before switching to saxophone while in high school after being inspired by Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.” He later studied with the legendary Joe Henderson and Bay Area hero Hal Stein.
Sankovich started banging on the upright piano in his parents’ El Cerrito, California home - “That was my go-to thing to calm stress,” he recalls - before they hired a teacher. He subsequently studied with noted jazz pianists Al Zulaica, Art Lande, and Mark Levine.
Adler and Sankovich played together in the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensembles, with which they toured Europe in 1980. The saxophonist later moved to Los Angeles, where he became in-demand as a session player and composer for television and film and recorded four albums of his own and one with the band Rain-bo Tribe before returning home to Berkeley. During the same period (1983-94), Sankovich spent more than a decade in Tokyo performing with the fusion band Taikun, playing for television and radio productions, and working in an art gallery. While at the gallery, he met Chinese artist Lu Hong, whose striking paintings would years later grace the covers of all three Times 4 CDs.
Lofton’s initial bass inspiration was Bootsy Collins, and Miles taught himself to play drums by playing along with Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver.” The two musicians met at a high school party in San Jose in the late 1980s. “He was the only black kid playing with a Filipino Top 40 band,” Miles says of Lofton. “I introduced myself and let him know I play drums.” The two musicians would go on to perform together in the Bay Area funk band Protégé, then in a rhythm section backing Oakland rapper Kofy Brown, and now in Times 4.
The tightly locking grooves that underpin Times 4’s sound are to a great degree the result of the time Lofton and Miles have spent together on bandstands.
“We know each other’s ways and stay out of each other’s way,” Lofton says. “It’s intuitive.”
“We can anticipate what each other is doing,” Miles adds. “Now that Times 4 has been playing together for seven years, I know what Lincoln and Greg are probably going to do, just like they know just what Kevin and I are going to do.”
The birth of Times 4 can be traced to a chance meeting between Adler and Miles at a 2003 Steve Coleman performance at Bruno’s in San Francisco. “He came and stood right by me,” Miles says of the saxophonist. “We were grooving to the music, and we broke into a conversation.” Miles invited Adler to see him play in Kofy Brown’s band, which also included Lofton.
Adler, Lofton, and Miles hit it off the moment they first played together. They tried adding a guitarist to the group, but when he didn’t work out, Adler called his old friend Sankovich, who mostly had been doing recording sessions with deep house DJs since his return from Japan a decade earlier.
“When Greg came in, it was like we had been playing together for years,” Miles recalls.
The four musicians began gigging almost immediately, even though they knew only six songs as a unit at the time. In order to fill out a three-hour gig, they had to improvise many new numbers on the spot. Those improvised jams would serve as the basis for some of the tunes on Times 4’s first two CDs.
“We started as an improvising band, and we just kept going,” Miles says. “What we came up with was really cool.”
Most of the music on Eclipse is more tightly structured than that on the quartet’s previous CDs, yet the new release retains the spontaneity and excitement that have been Times 4 hallmarks since the group’s beginning. “We didn’t want to lose that,” Sankovich explains. “You want to be able to deliver that at a point when you’re playing, but we were a lot more conscious about creating space and balance.”
“This one is more thought-out,” Miles says of Eclipse. “We’re more mature as writers.”
Times 4 functions as a democracy in which in each member has an equal voice. The group’s uncanny musical cohesiveness is an outgrowth of that process. “As musicians,” Sankovich says, “we try to listen to the spaces of conversations, more than to the actual words. Words are wholly inappropriate to describe feelings and ideas on some levels. We try to listen to the groove. When everybody is firing on all cylinders, then we know we’ve got a decision.”
So far, the musical democracy that is Times 4 has worked extremely well for the band and its growing legion of fans. “I feel that our music really grooves well and it really feels good,” Miles says. “I think that’s what people really like about us.”
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