There was a time when fusion pianist LONNIE LISTON SMITH promised to make a viable con nection between post-Coltrane jazz energy and Weather Report's vanguard electronics. Coming out of extended stays with saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri, Smith showed on 1972's "Astral Traveling" that there was an acceptable middle ground between intensely dynamic spiritualism (the Coltrane influence) and progressive-yet- commercial sensibility (fusion in general).
Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Smith has tended to regurgitate his better ideas in increasingly vapid cycles. "Dreams of Tomorrow" is at best pleasant, but more often disappointing, despite three percolating pop tunes by super-bassist Marcus Miller.
Smith's own compositions tend to be a bit bliss-heavy, which is fine on a personal level but deadly dull musically. "Dreams of Tomorrow," one of four songs featuring vocals by Donald Smith, is particularly lethargic -- you keep wishing Leon Thomas would drop by to perk things up. "Mystic Woman" is funky-frothy, a simplistic melody engagingly delivered.
Smith has two basic approaches: One allows plenty of reflective space in the music ("A Garden of Peace" for his spiritual master, Sri Chinmoy), while the other builds shimmering electronic layers over a medium-paced, light-funk pulse. The bottom line, though, is that the fiery resourcefulness of Smith's earlier work has been replaced by a consummate professionalism that too often sinks into sameness.
You know immediately from listening to GEORGE HOWARD that he's paid attention to the Grover Washington formula -- firsthand, because he was a Washington sideman for several years. "Asphalt Gardens" has already spawned one hit single, "The Preacher," a tight, propulsive, feel-good tune that's sensual with just a hint of exuberant bluesiness. Howard's soprano-sax work has a soaring, searing quality solidly grounded in simplistic -- if you like it, make that "earthy" -- commercial mannerisms. (Though on "As We Grow," he shows off a bit of Bennie Maupin-ish outside playing over a rolling bottom.) Howard has a sure commercial insinct and the flair to match. The only problem, and it's certainly not uncommon, is that he lets the vocal numbers meander, not quite sure how to end them (at least the voice is pleasant). Make no mistake, though: Grover Washington has company. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS LONNIE LISTON SMITH -- Dreams of Tomorrow (Doctor Jazz FW38447). GEORGE HOWARD -- Asphalt Gardens (Palo Alto 8035). THE SHOW SMITH, HOWARD, Tom Browne and Roy Ayers, Saturday at 8:30 at Constitution Hall.