Richard Elliott first caught my ear during the mid-’80s as a member of one of the West Coast’s hottest funk/jazz bands, Tower of Power. Later, he put out a solo album called Trolltown that featured an electrifying remake of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” He charted with the old Percy Sledge hit “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a bombast of sax passion that got serious radio play on smooth-jazz stations and made Elliott almost iconic. But unlike many of his saxist contemporaries who were likewise churning out sexy pop covers left and right (of them, I put Ernie Watts at the top of the class, George Howard somewhere in the middle, and soulless Kenny G at the bottom), Richard Elliott doesn’t just cover songs. He owns them with his wit and the force of his bullish tone.
But I think that pop sax has painted itself into a corner with that tone, golden as it may be. It is not the natural sound of the instrument — the sound of today’s pop jazz sax is oversaturated, excessive, and exaggerated. By nature, a sax is a breathy and reedy contraption with brass overtones; Stan Getz worked that range better than anyone. Sax tone is highly influenced by the shape of the mouthpiece and by the grip one puts on it with one’s jaws while blowing.
Elliott’s tone has its roots in Grover Washington, Tom Scott, and the nearly forgotten Ronnie Laws. Born in Scotland and raised in L.A., Richard Elliott came into music during that overblown rawness of saxology. But like a lot of smooth jazz stars, Elliott appears to have much more going on intellectually in his music than that yuppie-smug prosaic format will bear. He steps away from those constraints when performing live.
RICHARD ELLIOTT, 4th & B, Friday, February 15, 7 p.m. 619-231-4343. $40 to $50.