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Scott Puts a Smooth Spin on the Holidays

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Styling Christmas music as jazz fusion is a natural, a fact proven Friday at Veterans Wadsworth Theater when saxophonist Tom Scott presented a program entitled “Smooth Jazz Christmas” before a small but enthusiastic audience. Scott, with help from guitarist-vocalist Jonathan Butler, singer Lalah Hathaway, a five-piece supporting band and three backup singers made merry on a variety of traditional and popular holiday music in a way that maintained the spirit of the material while refashioning it in the smooth jazz image.

Though the evening’s performance wasn’t entirely of seasonal music--both Scott and Butler took time to explore previously recorded, non-holiday tunes--it was at its best when Christmas was its focus. Specifically, it was Hathaway’s rich, smoky interpretation of “What Child Is This? (Greensleeves)” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” backed by Scott’s equally soulful saxophone, that made this more than just an evening of carols with a beat.

Hathaway’s soulful readings, delivered without overreliance on embellishment and stylization, came early in the evening and provided an emotional high point unequaled in the remaining hour and a half. The concert should have made more of such familiar seasonal songs and relied less on filling time with soft-rock instrumentals and pop vocals.

As it was, too much time was spent on tunes from Scott’s days with pioneering jazz-funk band the L.A. Express and Butler’s predictable soft ballads. Butler’s material, especially, was weak and his voice stood in poor contrast to Hathaway’s, its thin, somewhat nasal George Benson-inspired sound no match for her depth and feeling.

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Not all the holiday music was a winner. Butler, backed by pianist Alan Pasqua, was particularly irritating singing a highly stylized version of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song.” But Pasqua’s unaccompanied improvisation on “O Come All Ye Faithful” that opened the second half of the show was a marvel of technique and feeling.

Pasqua’s contributions on both electric keyboards and piano were a joy throughout the show. The drum-tight rhythm section of guitarist Tariqh Akonis , bassist Andre Barry, drummer Johnny Friday and percussionist Steve Forman did much to keep the program alive, bringing new life to Scott’s familiar “Tom Cat” and an old, unrecorded L.A. Express tune “TCB in ‘E” that found Butler making a strong rhythm contribution in tandem with Akonis.

But songs like Scott’s rendition of “Ode to Billie Joe” seemed out of place when closely followed by Hathaway’s sincere reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Next time, more holiday material would make this a Christmas program worth remembering.

Another Review: MUSIC: Musica Angelica in Pasadena. F10

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