Versatile Guitarist Chuck Loeb, A Member of Fourplay and Steps Ahead, Dies at 61

Aug 1, 2017

Chuck Loeb, a crisply proficient guitarist who progressed from a sideman and session ace to a prominent solo artist and collaborator in the field of smooth jazz, died on Monday. He was 61.

His death was announced on his Facebook page. No cause of death was given.

Loeb was a member of two popular bands working along the seam of jazz-pop and fusion: Steps Ahead, which brought him aboard in the mid-1980s, and Fourplay, which he joined in 2010. He was also known for his association with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and for a slate of commercial work that spanned movie soundtracks, network television scores and even the former CNN main and Headline News themes.

As a guitarist, he balanced brisk fluency with cool restraint, drawing not only from early heroes like Jimi Hendrix but also from jazz lodestars like Jim Hall, with whom he studied. Like Hall, Loeb had an abundance of technique that he often held in reserve. His ability to convey emotional connection with a melodic line, through a round, clean tone, made him a worthy heir to a smooth-jazz progenitor like George Benson.

Loeb’s solo discography, beginning in the late ‘80s, encompasses almost two dozen albums, most of them in a sleek fusionesque mode. He was a fixture on contemporary jazz radio, and had a series of tracks on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz Songs chart, including “Window of the Soul,” which reached No. 1 in 2008.

His most recent album — Unspoken, released last year on his longtime label, Shanachie — was inspired in part by his recovery and rehabilitation after surgery. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, and produced a hit single in “Cotton Club,” a four-on-the-floor funk tune featuring keyboardist Jeff Lorber.

Charles Samuel Loeb was born in Suffern, N.Y., and raised in nearby Nyack, a suburb of New York City. He latched onto the guitar at 11, after his older sister brought home an acoustic instrument in hopes of becoming a folk singer. He was self-taught at first, copying chords and licks from rock albums.

After honing his skills with local bands, Loeb sought out private lessons from Dennis Sandole, a jazz guru in Philadelphia, whose previous students had included John Coltrane. It was Sandole who eventually recommended Loeb to Jim Hall, with whom he studied during his last two years of high school. He then spent a couple of years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Pat Metheny, among others, before being lured away by professional opportunities.

Loeb’s journeyman career was substantial, including stints with drummer Chico Hamilton, percussionist Ray Barretto and flutist Hubert Laws. In 1979, he was hired by Getz, who made him not only a featured soloist in his group but also musical director, and an in-house composer.

While Loeb only stayed in Getz’s band for two years before heading out on his own, it was a prominent association, and a meaningful one. He met his future wife, singer-songwriter Carmen Cuesta, while on tour with Getz in Madrid. (Getz was best man at their wedding.) Cuesta survives him, along with their two daughters, Christina and Elizabeth, known as Lizzy.

Loeb’s career after the Getz band took off quickly, as he racked up hundreds if not thousands of hours in the studio. He already had extensive credits before he released his debut album, My Shining Hour, in 1989, followed a year later by Magic Fingers, which was jointly credited to pianist Andy LaVerne. In the ‘90s, as he made his own albums and worked with Steps Ahead, Loeb also belonged to two fusion collectives, Metro (which he formed with keyboardist Mitchel Forman, another Getz alum) and the Fantasy Band (with partners including vibraphonist Dave Samuels and saxophonist Marion Meadows).

Steps Ahead released its most recent album, Steppin’ Out, last month, with Loeb featured throughout. He also appeared on new albums by the Jeff Lorber Fusion and electric bassist Nathan East, his band mate in Fourplay.

In addition to his career as a guitarist and producer, Loeb was active as a clinician and teacher, notably through the online portal ArtistWorks. He saw this as a means of giving back: “When I was coming up, I was the beneficiary of that exact thing from Jim Hall,” he told WBGO’s Doug Doyle in 2014.

“I don’t think I was really quite ready for his level of mastery of the guitar,” he added, “but he took me on, and it was a life-changing experience. The blanket acceptance of me, of who I was, by Jim, and the encouragement he gave me, has been a guiding light for me. And it’s not just him: it’s so many guitar players I’ve run across in my career.”

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Monifa Brown, host of Saturday Afternoon Jazz at WBGO, worked with Chuck Loeb for years in her capacity as a label publicist. She shared the tribute below.

It is with a heavy heart that I pay tribute to a genius musician and a beautiful soul, both off and on the bandstand. As a guitarist, Chuck Loeb could play anything. Not only was he one of the premiere architects of contemporary jazz, but he could also dig in, swing and burn with the best of them. There were no limits for Chuck. As the publicist for Shanachie Entertainment for the past 16 years, I have had the pleasure to work closely with him. Luckily for me, he was one of the first artists I got to know. 

Having worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Stan Getz (who was best man at Chuck’s wedding to singer Carmen Cuesta), Chuck could have easily been intimidating. But that was not his style. He was humble. He was a devoted family man. He cared about what you thought, loved to share his knowledge, and he was always appreciative of your efforts. He was the kind of person who made everyone in the room feel important and valued.

I think these attributes transcend Chuck’s music. There isn’t a musician I have met over the past 20 years who had an ill word to say about Chuck — nor one who didn’t comment on his genius as an improviser, composer and producer. 

Chuck: your divine presence will sorely be missed, the notes you spun into the world changed the fabric of our lives, and although you have left us too soon, the melodies you have given us will forever play on.