When Grover Washington Jr. and Jeff Lorber were in their '70s and '80s salad days, folks called their music fusion. Those players, and others who came after, made their living with sounds steeped deeply in jazz but including elements of more commercial genres.
It wasn't easy being a pioneer. On Monday night, decades after the advent of Washington's music and five years after his untimely death, keyboardist Lorber and three of Washington's musical heirs came together at the Dell East to celebrate and shed light on the career of the unique Philadelphia saxophonist.
Starting a tour called Groovin' for Grover, Lorber and saxophonists Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Paul Taylor paid homage to Washington, whose widow, children and grandchild were in the house.
The first set was devoted to each musician's repertoire.
Cheltenham native Lorber contributed a quiet, stormy set. The saxophonists, all of whom play what's now called smooth jazz, displayed disparate, highly personal styles, and archival footage that ran during intermission showed that Washington could out-improvise them all.
The show didn't coalesce until the sax players attacked Washington's material.
As did Washington, Albright has proved his mainstream jazz chops, and was by far the class of the night. On alto and tenor, he was adventurous, soulful and gutsy, going so far as to chant and breathe into his horn while playing rhythms with his fingers.
Elliot was all emotion and angst, playing each note as if he would burst if he weren't allowed to blow his tiger-striped horn.
Poor Taylor, who was competent and hip throughout (dropping Prince quotes into "Let It Flow"), seemed little more than a deer in the headlights compared with Albright and Elliot.
Toward the end, after the band kicked into the Washington standard "Mr. Magic," the battles between Elliot and Albright intensified, then resolved in an amicable stalemate. The Washington canon was the better for it.