George Howard, the classically trained bassoonist whose switch to playing pop-jazz on the soprano saxophone has paid off handsomely in recent years, could be too easily dismissed as yet another Grover Washington Jr. clone. Both, after all, play in a similar style and both are mired in deep funk grooves.
But Howard, who played a one-nighter at the Strand in Redondo Beach on Thursday evening, plays with less intensity and authority than his former boss and with considerably more capriciousness, a quality that lent an air of fun to his first show’s proceedings.
In terms of his ranking among jazz saxophonists, Howard remains well at the bottom of the lengthy list. His intonation is generally atrocious and his abilities as an improviser are seriously limited. Though the former condition seems chronic, he has made the best of his melodic limitations by concentrating on brief passages that float wistfully over the rhythmic and harmonic underpinnings of his ensemble.
In “Funk It Out,” for instance, Howard created a pleasant, sing-song melody that was played out in a dialogue with guitarist Kevin Chokan. The effect was good and showed the musical sensibility of both players. The tune also served as a decent vehicle for the fine solo efforts of keyboardist Mark Stephens.
Equally playable and playful was “Dancing in the Sun,” another pleasant tune made even more interesting by bassist Sam Simms’ solo and scat chorus.
Each of the tunes presented during Howard’s long opening set was in a funk groove. While such rhythmic restrictions quickly grew monotonous, they were presented with a sense of dynamics that didn’t threaten to overpower the band’s attempts at melody.