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Artists show how smooth jazz is done

For many critics, this one included, the term "smooth jazz" is hardly a compliment.

Born of a mix of jazz, R&B and easygoing pop, "smooth jazz' has become the Muzak of the '90s _ instrumental versions of big hits from the past, with saxophone and slightly distorted guitar lines standing in for the vocal parts.

Still, there's a right way to do it. And Sunday night, smooth jazz artists Bobby Caldwell and Randy Crawford showed an appreciative crowd of nearly 1,200 how it's done.

Packed into Mahaffey Theater, the devoted throng broke into frenzied waves of applause from the moment Crawford stepped onstage, her bright smile lighting up the venue.

Offering a cool-school onstage vibe _ at least, at first _ the singer reclined on a barstool while easing through her smoldering version of George Benson's Give Me the Night.

Backed by a crack five-piece band, Crawford offered funk-tinged versions of the cover material from her latest album, Naked and True _ including workouts on Billie Holiday's What a Difference a Day Makes and the Spinners' I'll Be Around.

By the time she reached the show's climax, a frenetic version of the Crusaders' Street Life _ Crawford provided the powerhouse vocals on the original 1978 hit _ she was bringing her gutsiest work of the night.

Still, her restrained onstage moves contrasted sharply with opener Bobby Caldwell, who brought a curious mix of blue-eyed soul and fusion-style jazz to the show.

Blending covers of classic R&B tunes like Don't Ask My Neighbor and Your Precious Love with his own 1979 hit What You Won't Do For Love, the Miami native spiced every tune with accents and vocal flourishes, letting his eight-piece band show off.

The only problem with both Caldwell and Crawford's sets were the overwhelming amount of cover tunes. The presence of familiar songs undermined each artist's own work.

To be sure, it's tough to blame longtime artists like Caldwell and Crawford for wanting to get paid a little after all these years. But I couldn't help wondering how much better the show would have been if they'd concentrated on their own tunes instead of someone else's.