Playing two tunes from his latest release, "NY LA," smooth jazz saxophonist Steve Cole opened his concert at the Birchmere on Thursday night with some jackhammered funk. Trouble is, the rhythmic assault was forceful enough to perforate a bass drum and trigger an unscheduled interlude while repairs were being made. So it was on to Plan B: a crowd-pleasing but otherwise forgettable singalong version of "It's Gonna Be Alright," punctuated by Cole's sultry tenor sax.
For the rest of the show, Cole and his quartet loudly tacked back and forth between tunes rooted in R&B beats and romantic ballads that seemed carefully tailored for radio airplay. Though a classically trained musician, Cole didn't become a contemporary jazz star by concealing his pop influences -- David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr. are on the shortlist -- or by cautiously reprising hits and album cuts in concert. "Say It Again" received the boldest makeover, especially when keyboardist Mike Logan began to evoke the sound of a Hammond-organ-powered after-hours session. The band also briefly ventured into blues-rock and early fusion jazz grooves, providing some welcome changes of pace.
At one point Cole mocked the tension-building tricks of his trade, theatrically wiping his brow during a dramatic pause. But he wasn't the least bit shy when it came time to display his harmonic prowess or his gift for stacking one keening chorus on top of another. He didn't break any ground, but he and his band mates certainly shook it up some. (They perform tonight at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.)
-- Mike Joyce