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All Grown Up

Sometimes, musical maturity takes a while. In the case of saxophonist George Howard, who recorded his first CD in 1982, it took a decade and a half. But now everything's starting to jell. On Attitude Adjustment, his most recent release (not counting this year's greatest hits package), the grooves have finally locked into place for his strongest statement yet.

Although Howard's mid-'80s releases made use of stellar players such as Stanley Clarke and George Duke, they were rife with artificial, computer-generated sounds, and the music suffered for it. Not that the futuristic stuff didn't go over saleswise -- Howard's releases have always done well in that department. Still, commercial success doesn't necessarily equal good music, and by incorporating everything from synthesized French horn, violin and flute to drum programs and electric percussion, Howard's mid-'80s output did a lot for machinery -- and very little for emotion. Back then, Howard was in charge of the production, and his lack of experience in that area manifested itself frequently. About the only thing saving the whole synthetic mess was Howard's sweet soprano sax.

Howard, who hails from Philadelphia, originally started out on clarinet and bassoon before switching to soprano sax. He got his feet wet in the 1970s doing session work around Philadelphia with area stars such as Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Dexter Wansel. But it wasn't until he joined up with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. that the light bulb went off in his head and he realized that music on the order of Washington's jazzy funk was the direction he wanted to pursue.

Some might argue about whether Howard's music is even jazz. Probably not; it's more like instrumental R&B with Howard's saxophone taking the place of the lead vocals and the sax solos just killing time, rather than the solos being the focal point of the music as it is in jazz. Howard can't help it if stores put his CDs in the jazz section. And anyway, his legion of fans aren't complaining.

Lately, Howard has for the most part done away with the drum machines and eschewed the fake French horns and violins. He's even playing some tenor sax now as well. On Attitude Adjustment, Ray Hayden produces some of the finest jams on the album, and Speech from Arrested Development produces one tune. But the most welcome addition is George Duke, who's back and, this time, lending not only his considerable writing talents but his production talents as well. The tunes in which Duke has a hand are some of Howard's best so far -- cool, jazzy melodies weaving in and out of the heaviest funk grooves the artist has ever attempted. That's maturity for you: having the grace and knowledge to admit what you do well, and what others do better.

-- Mark Towns

George Howard performs at 9 p.m. Friday, June 27, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $15. For info, call 869-TICS.

The Sharecroppers -- Word has it that this multifaceted sextet was discovered two years back performing at an Austin antique show. If that's true, it's telling, considering that the Sharecroppers are timeless rogues, their largely acoustic, deep-rooted sound as comfy -- and as far from antiquated -- as a durable, hand-sewn quilt. No one knows that better than steel guitar wiz Lloyd Maines, who was so enamored of the band that he produced their demo. Both on the strength of that tape and the Sharecroppers' down-home-transcendent live shows, the group has ambled its way into the good graces of the No Depression set -- not to mention a prime position for acquisition by a major label.

Still, talk about unlikely rock stars: The Sharecroppers are the closest thing to a hippie collective you're likely to come across these days. Tree-huggers in the extreme, they're prone to long excursions into the wilderness with only their instruments to keep them company. The group's rustic, largely acoustic approach reflects that oneness with nature: mandolin, banjo, accordion, steel guitar, harmonica, trumpet and various percussion (including spoons) all enter into the band's woodsy entanglement of folk, country, pop, bluegrass and C&W. Their effortless melodies and earthy version of what passes for humor provide the glue that binds the disparate instrumentation. In the harmonica-doused "Comin' Home," for instance, a road-weary traveler heads toward a reunion with his mate in hopes that she'll "be there in the doorway for me / Wearin' nothing but your tattoo." And the tune's jubilant chorus matches that breathless sexual anticipation mile for mile.

As if that weren't enough, the Sharecroppers are also blessed with no less than three strong singers in Nathan Hamilton, Bill Palmer and Mark Utter, the last of whom's surly, bigger-than-life delivery owes as much to Axl Rose as it does to Steve Earl. Imagine that: a little bit of "Paradise City" in the Hill Country. Maybe there's hope for alt-country on mainstream radio after all. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. George DeVore and the Roam open. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland

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