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The soul of sax

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Grover Washington Jr. has become the preeminent jazz messenger. As one of contemporary jazz's most versatile reed men, the 53-year-old considers himself a steady bridge between the rich, productive post-bop era and the present-day "smooth jazz" scene so often criticized for its faceless stylists and lack of edge.

Perhaps it's because Washington has never worried about his approach to the music.

"I don't think in terms of categories," Washington said in a recent interview. "My main motive is to move on. I want to venture forward and stay in the mood of my moment."

He is indeed adept at that. His 1971 debut, Inner City Blues, brought Washington's soulful tenor sax to the forefront via a bubbling R&B market hungry to move beyond the bubblegum fare of urban radio.

Over the next two decades, Washington found himself all over the map: recording with singer Bill Withers the 1981 pop hit Just The Two Of Us, or commiserating a retro-bop sound with accomplished masters such as Tommy Flanagan and Herbie Hancock on 1987's Then and Now.

Along the way, Washington took his chances, too. Albums such as Reed Seed and Come Morning were snoozers. But, mostly he walked the golden pathway.

The saucy Winelight (1980), which yielded Just The Two Of Us, earned two Grammys and to date has sold more than 2-million copies.

Last year's Soulful Strut took Washington on a return trip to his R&B roots, with remakes of the Young-Holt Unlimited track that spawned the album's title, as well as Peabo Bryson's You Can Stop The Rain.

"I loved Peabo's version," said Washington. "I like to think of myself as a singer whose voice is a saxophone. I see myself as a servant of melody, a respectful interpreter."

Grover Washington Jr. appears Sunday at Mahaffey Theater at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28.50 and $24.50.