The curtain pulls back and the saxophonist stands with his back to the audience, displaying a glittering "E.D.'' in silver stones on his black blazer.
Eric Darius wheels around and blasts the audience with the opening riff from Just Like That. His five-piece band joins in and the crowd roars. He bounces and rocks as he plays, wraparound shades hiding his eyes.
The sounds of his alto saxophone wash over a sea of people who have jammed into the Venue, a hot new club on Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County. They're celebrating Darius' fourth album, Goin' All Out, his first for the legendary Blue Note label. Upstairs, fans stand three and four deep against the balcony to get a view of this 25-year-old who calls Tampa home.
Even those who can't see him sway as Darius wails. Stylishly coiffed heads bop, designer-clad feet tap, hips swathed in expensive suits and cocktail dresses swing. The audience is black, it's white, it's old, it's young. All there for Darius.
During every break, he is pinching himself to make sure he isn't dreaming.
• • •
Inspired by Nolan Sherritz, a saxophonist at his Tampa church, Darius took up the sax at age 10. A year later, he joined Sonny LaRosa and America's Youngest Jazz Band onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. That's where he learned to love jazz legends like Adderley, Coltrane and Parker. And it's where he found his passion.
"It was just a mind-blowing experience," he said. "Seeing how the people reacted to the music — people were dancing and smiling — and the feeling I got making other people feel good really touched me. I realized I wanted to do that for the rest of my life."
He started writing music at 13 and released his first CD at 17, while a student at Blake High School, the performing arts magnet in Tampa. In 2004, Smooth Jazz News hailed Darius as the best debut artist of the year, and his 2006 album, Just Getting Started, spent nine consecutive weeks in the Top 10 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart.
Goin' All Out, the first single off the new disc, is in the Top 20 most-played smooth jazz songs nationally, according to Nielsen's Radio and Records chart. He has been asked to perform at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, and his Web site (www.ericdarius.com) lists upcoming concerts and festivals all over the country.
He has shared stages with names as big and diverse as Brian McKnight, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis and Prince, but he's firmly committed to his own music.
"He's not afraid to follow the music that's in his head and heart," said Kathy Curtis, a DJ at smooth jazz station WSJT-FM 94.1. "We've been looking for a new artist who wants to create new sounds, sounds that we can get a hold of and enjoy.
"You can tell he is a creative musician when you hear his music, and that's why we think he has the potential to make it to the top and stay there."
• • •
One journey Darius says he's not interested in taking: leaving his hometown.
Tampa Bay is hardly a mecca for jazz. Clubs that open with great promise fizzle and it's tough for less commercial jazz to find a place on local radio.
"Tampa's home," Darius said. "It's unfortunate that the jazz scene isn't big like it is in New York, but we have just as much talent here as any other major city. I want to bring attention to Tampa on a national and international level."
Darius is always creating music, even as he tools around town in his Lexus SUV, thinking about what's going on in his life, including his recent split with his fiancee.
"About two or three months before we were scheduled to get married, I realized that wasn't the path God had called me to be on," Darius said. "She wasn't the person for me. That realization just hit me very hard"
Driving home from the gym, he suddenly was filled with a sense of hope.
"I turned the radio down and I got this real optimistic feeling that things were going to be better and all the things I was going through were just for the moment," Darius said. "It was like a spiritual feeling. God was telling me, 'You know what, put all your worries aside because I have plans for you.' "
From that feeling of optimism came a song that's on the new CD, an upbeat, no-regrets vibe he called Just for the Moment.
• • •
Fans of traditional, straight- ahead jazz scorn smooth jazz as elevator music, but it's undeniably popular; it has its own radio station in the Tampa Bay area.
With his insistence on risk taking and original composition, Darius, critics say, is a much-needed new voice in a genre whose top stars — and fans — are decades older than him.
"He's just what smooth jazz needs," said Brian Soergel, a writer for Jazz Times and Smooth Jazz News. "It's really difficult for instrumental songs to cross over into another audience, but if anybody can do it, Eric can."
One reason for the crossover talk is Darius' music choices: Goin' All Out contains renditions of Ne-Yo's Because Of You and Mary J. Blige's Be Without You, while other tracks include his own fusion of jazz, hip-hop and pop. Feelin' Da Rhythm features a driving reggaeton beat that harkens to his parents' Caribbean roots.
"I'm taking a big risk because the music is really outside of the box of smooth jazz," Darius said. "A lot of musicians are in this 'play-it-safe' mode. They want to make music that's radio-friendly. I'm the type of musician that I want to do something different every single time,'' he said.
"I just hope the listeners are willing to take the musical journey with me."
To judge from the crowd at the Venue, and the growing national buzz, Darius will have no lack of traveling companions.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or email@example.com.