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MUSIC REVIEW

Onstage, his smoothness turns funky and soulful

The worst thing about smooth jazz is that it's misnamed. Call it, say, instrumental R&B and it's harder to imagine it provoking the same ire from jazz geeks. Not music for contemplation or catharsis, it's a soundtrack for everything from dinner to washing the dishes.

Saxophonist Walter Beasley is a smooth jazz star with an open, funny stage manner. His music veers toward the funkier end of the spectrum. He plays the alto and soprano saxophones and sings in an unpretentious, soul-based style.

Beasley's studio recordings can sound hermetic and mechanical. But live, backed by his tight band and anchored by the rock-solid drumming of Sean Chase, the effect is less smooth than bumpy. These guys can sling some serious grooves.

Most of Wednesday night's first set at Scullers was drawn from Beasley's latest CD, ''For Her." The opening number, ''What Ya' Feelin'?," overlaid an old-school groove with tinkly keyboard and wah-wah guitar. Beasley's supple-toned alto saxophone played the melody straight, then added filigree on the second go-round. As the tune neared its end, bassist Webster Roach kicked the groove up a notch with a surging line reminiscent of the great James Jamerson of Motown's Funk Brothers.

Then the band jump-cut to ''Nice and Easy," a laid-back, minor-key lope. Dawoud Said's bracing electric piano solo was jabbing and angular, evolving into dissonant upper register runs. Beasley soloed sparely, toying with the sound mix's reverb as it echoed his phrases. He also loosed two startling, lowdown honks.

Beasley sang rocker Bobby Freeman's ''Do You Want to Dance" as a ballad. A glossy instrumental version of Deniece Williams's ''Free" was highlighted by a twangy guitar solo from Wayne Jones.

''Grace" featured the night's first soprano sax solo from Beasley. His way with this overexposed instrument is tarter than that of the cloying Kenny G, but still more sweet than sour. For the next two numbers, the rhythms stiffened and dragged, with Beasley's second vocal turn, ''Don't Say Goodnight," less engaging than his first.

But the groove recovered for the final tune, James Lloyd's ''Coolness," a tight-hipped, 1980s funk stomp. And Beasley saved his best solo of the evening for last: Urgently repeating a single note with varying rhythms and unexpected stabs at other notes, he built to dissonant up-and-down glissandos.

His solo closed with a quote from the Ohio Players' ''Fire," and he left the stage as his crack band continued to burn.

Too bad there's no dance floor at Scullers.

Walter Beasley wraps up his three night stand at Scullers Jazz Club in the Doubletree Guest Suites (400 Soldiers Field Rd.) with two shows Friday night at 8 and 10:30 p.m.

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