Tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder has one of the most easily recognizable sounds in modern music, thanks to a distinctive beaming tone that's part gold, part grit.
Millions of jazz listeners are familiar with Houston-born Felder, who appears tonight at El Matador in Huntington Beach, through his performances with the Crusaders. The saxophonist is a founding member of that popular ensemble, along with drummer Stix Hooper, pianist Joe Sample and trombonist Wayne Henderson. Felder and Sample are the only remaining members (Henderson left the fold in 1974, Hooper in 1982).
He's also recorded a handful of solo albums--including 1990's "Love Is a Rush" and last year's "Nocturnal Moods." But for years, Felder's primary concern was the Crusaders, even though the group has been mostly inactive since the late '80s.
"I really feel the sound of the Crusaders is unique, and for quite some time I felt I didn't want my horn heard in other contexts," Felder, 51, said in a phone conversation from his home in Long Beach.
Last year, Felder did an about-face. The tall, slender musician--who also is an electric bass specialist, and who has played that instrument on hundreds of albums for other artists--began doing selected live shows.
"I made up my mind to start playing. I realized I missed it," he said.
One of Felder's first engagements was at El Matador, where he played with bassist Luther Hughes, drummer Dave Hooper and others. It was a jam session, call-tunes-on-the-spot affair, and it was an ideal situation for the saxophonist.
"I got a chance to play with different musicians and have fun without having to be the leader," he said. "And I like the club's relaxed atmosphere. I can look right at the people and have interplay with them. And it's not like a concert, where I have to give a performance. There I can just play."
Guitarist Ron Eschete, a mainstream and blues master, is Felder's foil tonight. Though the two have never worked together before, Felder is looking forward to their meeting.
"People have told me I'll have a great time, they tell me Ron's a great player," Felder said. "We'll just call some tunes and start playing. That's the fun of playing at El Matador. It's a surprise every time."
Felder, who is known more for groove-based, R & B-styled horn work, will no doubt get a chance with Eschete to play in a more straight-ahead mode. That's OK, too, the saxophonist said, because the mainstream mode, as with the funk style he most often plays in, has its advantages.
"I like playing standards, where there are chord changes, because they keep me thinking and creating, without being in the rut of playing over the same thing, as you do with a one- or two-chord vamp," he said. "Standards also keep me thinking lyrically."
Two other vehicles for Felder's tenor these days are pianist Rob Mullins' All-Stars, and ex-Crusader Henderson's new band, Wayne Henderson & the Next Crusade. The band, which spotlights the reunion of Felder and the trombonist, can be heard on the recently released "Back to the Groove" album.
That band, which also includes Mullins and guitarist Dwight Sills, made its debut last January at Birdland West in Long Beach (where it returns June 5 and 6) and spent most of April in Japan. Felder's solo recording career was reactivated with "Nocturnal Moods," which Henderson produced and which placed in the Top 10 on the Billboard contemporary jazz charts last year. It's an unusual project in that Felder recorded all his solos on top of background parts provided almost entirely by electronic instruments.
"There was no drummer, no bass player. Instead we used a drum machine and synthesized bass, though Rob Mullins added some keyboard tracks and Wally Ali played some guitar," said Felder.
"It felt good. However, there's nothing like playing with real guys. I prefer having musicians react to how I feel, because I don't feel the same way every day," he said, referring to the process of recording on top of the pre-programmed rhythm tracks.
The album, which Felder acknowledged was definitely an "experiment," includes his renditions of "Music of the Night," from the musical "Phantom of the Opera," the classic ballad, "Since I Fell for You" and some Felder originals.
Felder started out as an alto saxophonist, and as a teen-ager switched to tenor. He joined Hooper, Henderson and Sample in forming the Swingsters, which played mostly R & B in Houston in the early '50s. Then, after the musicians moved to Los Angeles in 1958, they opted for more of a jazz format, and were known variously as the Modern Jazz Sextet, the Nite Hawks and then the Jazz Crusaders (from 1960-69). In 1970, the band changed its name to the Crusaders and began playing its trademark brand of jazz-funk, and each of its members became widely known.
The saxophonist hopes that plans for a Crusaders reunion, on last year but currently off, will be revived. "I'm certainly up for it," he said.
* Wilton Felder plays tonight, 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., at El Matador, 16903 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach. Free. (714) 846-5337.