Richard Elliot: A Growing Sax Appeal

Saxman Richard Elliot makes a rare foray into the Land of Kenny G when he descends upon Seattle's Parker's for two shows tonight.

The former Tower of Power lead tenor reed man is riding very high these days, enjoying the acclaim for his fifth album, ``What's Inside,'' which boasts three songs capturing strong airplay. This is no mean trick for any contemporary jazz album. Why such a strong reception?

``The music follows suit with that of the previous `Take To The Skies,' which carved out a very good niche for us,'' says Elliot, reached by phone in Dayton, Ohio, in the midst of a frenetic 10-date Midwest tour. ``My albums before had a somewhat harder edge to them, and these last two have served as good vehicles to display the `emotional' side of my sax playing.''

Emotions run high in the R&B-flavored ``Movers and Shakers,'' a swaying vocal showcasing the talents of the infectious Michael and Danny Sembello. Oddly enough, Elliot questioned even including the song on ``What's Inside.'' ``Though I loved the track, I was scared it would be judged as being too preachy. I relented because it has a generic message about honesty and credibility - which, in view of the Persian Gulf crisis, is eerily timely.''

Another cut, an instrumental cover of John Lennon's ``Imagine,'' works well for the sax, says Elliot, because of the high ``goose bump'' factor. ``People seem to respond to our version, perhaps surprisingly because it is not R&B, which as a genre usually lends itself well to the lyricism of the sax.''

Any discussion of the 31-year-old Elliot, a recent transplant to Brandon, Fla., should include a mention of an inordinately warm audience rapport. In concert he works hard to please, wringing his performance from his alto, tenor and soprano saxes, the flute and ethereal-sounding lyricon. His appeal, say those closest to him, is based on his heart-felt desire to reach people. ``Richard doesn't just replicate his rehearsals in concert like so many artists; rather, he has a genuine conversation with the audience through his music,'' says Matt Kramer, who co-manages Elliot.

``We like to keep a real loose atmosphere up on stage,'' echoes Elliot. ``Too many groups try to be `spif' or `this-is-art-serious.' We want people to feel as if they're in someone's living room. We break down the wall between performer and audience, and they become loyal and respond better if they feel they've gotten `inside' us a little. As a result, we're motivated to play harder for them.''

This interpersonal approach works exceedingly well in the country's major jazz markets. But those outside the boundaries of the contemporary jazz scene are also awakening to Elliot's musical conversation.

Returning to Seattle for the third time in as many years, Elliot says his real connection with Puget Sound jazz listeners came during a 1990 concert at Chateau St. Michelle, where he shared the bill with The Rippingtons, Larry Carlton and Fattburger. ``We feel really good about returning now.''

His personal taste in listening runs the gamut from rocker Sting to jazz keyboardist David Benoit, though of today's innumerable sax players he most admires those with a discernable sound. ``That's why I feel Brandon Fields, Branford Marsalis and Kirk Whalum are so good - I can distinguish their influences but they've put them in their own definable style,'' he explains.

Eschewing labels because they ``only serve to alienate,'' Elliot says his musical style merges elements of jazz, Latin and R&B - an Osterized concoction he calls contemporary instrumental.

He relates a story that for him sums up his feeling about categorizing one's particular musical bent:

Making small talk as host of a club date for fellow artists on his Intima label - whose parent, Enigma, boasts a predominantly heavy-metal roster - Elliot asked his recording colleagues their opinion of contemporary jazz, his metier. Perhaps predictably, they had none. Later, excited by Elliot's typical fiery set, one of the heavy-metal fans approached him, admonishing, ``That wasn't `jazz'; that was `music.' ''

Says Elliot: ``The ultimate compliment.''