Saxy Stuff

Over the last few months, musicians' "summits" -- mini package tours of virtuoso musicians -- have been popping up on the Rockefeller's schedule with increasing regularity. From that, one can only assume there are actually people in Houston willing to shell out significant amounts of cash (upward of $50, in some cases) to simply listen and look as a superior player has a go at his instrument. Imagine that: skill alone serving as entertainment, bells and whistles not included. Nice concept.

Rockefeller's latest gathering of experts is its second in less than a year to celebrate the saxophone. Just the Sax 2 features four of the brightest young blowers on the contemporary scene -- Gerald Albright, Walter Beasley, Art Porter and Bobby Watson. Each has his own idea of where the sax fits into the scheme of today's -- and yesterday's -- R&B, jazz, funk and pop, and is keenly aware of the appropriate conditions required for genre-hopping.

Since he began recording for the Atlantic Jazz label in 1988, Gerald Albright hasn't been an easy person to figure out. Albright -- who had already sealed his reputation as an airtight horn man backing up superstar vocalists such as Anita Baker and Ray Parker -- began his solo jaunt with a contemporary jazz sound, then made an abrupt shift to the tradition-minded approach of 1991's Live at Birdland West, a release dominated by jazz standards. Next, he took an unexpected turn toward his R&B roots on Smooth, Birdland's follow-up, and finally came to a workable compromise on his latest CD, Giving Myself to You, which combines modern melodies with a purist's touch. With its uncanny ability to reach back while keeping his overall approach current, Albright's playing has invited valid comparisons to Grover Washington Jr.

While Walter Beasley grew up a big fan of R&B and funk, he was also trained in classical and jazz saxophone. This mixed musical upbringing shows in his stylistic eccentricities, as well as his talents as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and singer. Beasley's latest release, Private Time, strays all over the map, from jazz to R&B to funk to hip-hop. Like his fellow Just the Sax participants, Beasley craves control over his projects, but is also a firm believer in the power of collaboration. Nowhere is that more evident than in his studio work. Though he played most of the instruments on Private Time and also produces, Beasley gave talented newcomer Liz Withers free license to belt out some strikingly soulful lead vocals, some of which threaten to steal the spotlight.

Being the son of a jazz man, and sitting in as drummer with his dad's trio, you'd assume that Art Porter knows his stuff. You'd be assuming right. Porter made the switch from drums to alto sax at 15, and he's been blowing away ever since. His third release for the Verve Forecast label, Undercover, mixes impressive displays of virtuosity with a solid, present-day foundation. His style is relaxed, yet polished and cohesive.

An old buddy of fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, Bobby Watson learned his lessons as the musical director of Art Blakey's venerable Jazz Messengers, the ultimate graduate school for young players. Since then, he has forged ahead by continuing to defy categorization. One of Watson's defining traits is an almost bionic circular breathing technique, which allows him to play continuous riffs.

Chances are, Watson's extraordinary lung capacity won't be the only thing dropping jaws in the audience during this exceptional mix-and-match union of skill, style and technique.

-- Hobart Rowland
Just the Sax II comes to Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Saturday, May 25, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $22, $35 and $42.50. For info, call 869-8427.

Peter Rowan -- He made Boston's Club 47 scene during the '60s folk revival. He did the psychedelic rock thing, collaborating with mandolinist David Grisman in the acoustic Earth Opera and with fiddler Richard Greene in the more electric Sea Train. He explored the early country-rock frontier in a sibling trio, and even penned a few hits as a Nashville cat. But somehow, Peter Rowan always finds himself back at the beginning, playing his own brand of country music. It's a big kind of country, spanning bluegrass, Tex-Mex, Native American and other New World forms. It's traditional in an almost prognostic way.

A former guitarist for bluegrass deity Bill Monroe, Rowan has kept a foot in the grass door for more than 30 years. As a member of Old and In the Way with Grisman, Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements, he recorded a landmark release that introduced thousands of ears to the bluegrass form. Another project, Muleskinner, with Grisman and surreal guitarist Clarence White, shattered the boundaries of bluegrass and helped set the stage for the New Acoustic insurrection. These days, when not hanging at his current home in Blanco, Rowan will often hit the road or studio with a stirring concoction of grassers.

Mostly, though, Rowan has forged a more individual identity since the late 1980s. Reflecting a rare sense of history that gives his songs an instant credibility and timelessness, he writes of Depression-era America, of New World frontlines and culture clash, of prisons and freedom and of the fine line between the two. Rowan can write songs perfectly tailored to his high lonesome tenor, the white equivalent of deep soul.

It's these qualities that have periodically placed Rowan in the company of Grisman, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas -- pretty much all the great contemporary acoustic revolutionaries. He may not have their impossible command of the fret board, but he's perhaps the most complete artist of them all. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, Friday, May 24, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12. 528-5999. (Bob Burtman)

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Bob Burtman
Hobart Rowland