When you head out for a night of live music, sometimes you want to be challenged by new bands and cutting-edge sounds; other times you simply want the relaxing comfort of familiar tunes and dependable talent. Laith Al-Saadi offers the latter, but with quality and confidence that will challenge your assumptions about what a twenty-four-year-old local musician can do. A U-M "jazz studies" student, Al-Saadi performs with the maturity of a veteran fully in command of his voice and instrument, whether crooning Sinatra ballads, improvising on a Pat Metheny composition, or gettin' down with Chuck Berry.

Al-Saadi heads up the kind of weeknight cover band that fills the background while patrons drink and talk — until they can't ignore his polished performance any longer. Partnering with a bassist or keyboardist and a drummer, Al-Saadi plays guitar with the enthusiasm of a young rocker, but he also listens to his band members, and he gives them room to explore, too. His lineup has been in flux, but both of the versions I saw — one at the Tap Room in Ypsilanti that emphasized rock and R&B, the other at Goodnite Gracie that showcased more swank jazz — were tight ensembles, clearly having a ball together. When he plays, Al-Saadi lets his emotions go, closing his eyes and throwing his head back when the song hits a climax, often laughing as his fingers fly over the strings.

More than a capable mimic, Al-Saadi brings an improvisational spirit to everything he plays. His interpretation of "Georgia" surprises with creative guitar phrasing, and he demonstrates the results of his education in jazzy instrumentals like Sonny Rollins's "Oleo." Al-Saadi's guitar stands in for Rollins's sax, dishing up show-off looping solos and bursts of out-there riffs. He can pull just about any sound from his guitar, making it smooth and open or tight and bright, and I saw him break a string on "All along the Watchtower."

Al-Saadi's vocals are strong and warm and pitch perfect. He belts out blues standards with the proper growl in his voice, and romances his listeners with syrupy singing in "The Way You Look Tonight." He can do a soulful version of Ray Charles or a funky Stevie Wonder, improvising all around the vocal line while still offering the refinement of a trained musician.

Although I didn't see him perform any originals, Al-Saadi wrote songs for Blue Vinyl, the band he led as a Community High student, and there are some new originals in his live repertoire. Given the talents he has to draw on, and the range of musical styles with which he is comfortable, I'd be interested to hear some of his current compositions. Though I wouldn't wish rock-star fame on anyone, a lifelong career as a notable performer certainly seems in order.

Laith Al-Saadi is at Goodnite Gracie on Thursday, October 10 and 24.

Photograph by J. Adrian Wylie