A night of improv from Rickey Woodard

Special to The Times

The festive spirit of the season was in full glow Saturday night at Charlie O's in Valley Glen. The performance by saxophonist Rickey Woodard and the John Heard Trio was an irresistibly appealing holiday goody for an enthusiastic crowd comfortably ensconced in the venue's cozy environment.

Woodard -- a tenor saxophonist who occasionally varies his sets with a number or two on alto sax -- has played with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Horace Silver, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Ray Charles, the last for seven years.

And from the moment he moved into a dark-toned romp through Harold Arlen's standard, "My Shining Hour," it was apparent that his richly diverse professional experience would inform everything he played.

At a time when it can be difficult to find a tenor saxophonist who diverges from the John Coltrane-Michael Brecker style, Woodard comfortably follows his own muse. Although one can detect traces of Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley in the burly muscularity of his playing, he is on a determinedly original path, starting from the hard bop of his roots and proceeding into an improvisatory universe of his own making.

Much of what he played in his second set underscored that combination via pieces such as his own groove-oriented "Knucklehead," Carl Perkins' "Groove Yard," Gordon's "Fried Bananas" and a warmly romantic rendering of Jimmy Van Heusen's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."

Although Woodard is a facile technician, he rarely employed fast-fingered passages for showoff effect. More often, his fiery note bursts served as slashes of emphasis to enhance the melodic inventiveness of his improvisations.

Every note was delivered with an urgent sense of swing, powerfully driven by the bass work of Heard, the sturdy, inventive drumming of Roy McCurdy and the instant compositional piano style of Jon Mayer. Each of these all-star backup players also made the most of the frequent opportunities to step into the solo spotlight.

Enjoying this pre-Christmas offering, basking in the atmospheric jazz setting, I couldn't help but realize -- in this season of thankfulness -- how lucky Angelenos are to have players like Woodard and rooms such as Charlie O's available nightly. It's a gift that -- to repeat a nonetheless-appropriate holiday cliche -- just keeps on giving.

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