By Nelson Aspen:They're three deep at the bar by 6:30 p.m. and eager to hear Don Rice, whose tenor saxophone and trio musicians gently transform the large room at Sullivan's Steakhouse into the kind of supper club you'd find in Greenwich Village of long ago. When Rice starts playing "Green Dolphin Street," a crowd of many regulars applauds with great enthusiasm. A regular himself (four years). Rice has a knack for energizing the room without blowing away folks who want to eat and converse. "He's amazingly smooth," says Mark Woolford, general manager at Sullivan's. "He actually plays with the crowd, as well as the band." For Rice, it's the perfect gig. "To me, it's the most wonderful life," he says. "Every day is like I'm on vacation." The lifestyle, however, was a long time in the making. Rice lived in Omaha, Neb., when he fell in love with the desert decades ago. "I was unable to spend much time here, because of my life in the Midwest," he says, referring to his family, which includes four children. Back then. Rice worked day jobs in veterinary pharmaceuticals and wholesale costume jewelry, and played in jazz clubs at night. "My wife Evvie and I always had a goal to end up out here." The desert seemed impossibly out of reach when his wife was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1980s, but after she died, Rice made the move - with some reluctance. His heart hadn't been in his performances. "I didn't play at all," he says. "To play the kind of music I play, you have to be inspired, and it was too hard for me to get up on a bandstand. I stopped for a couple of years. But once I came to the desert and one of my sons brought me my horns, I slowly started to get back into it. I wood-shedded for a while and finally went out and met some other musicians." He polished his play, sat in with other musicians at local clubs and let music heal his soul. "Anytime I'm playing, it's almost impossible not to be in a good mood," he says. In addition to his Friday-Saturday sets at Sullivan's, Rice joins Ted Herman's Big Band monthly at the Heritage Palms Country Club, and appears with JAMS (Jazz Appreciation Music Society). He also plays in festivals around the country. But, he says, \"most of what I do at Sullivan's is what I like best: to play standards and improvise, which is what jazz is all about.\" Rice performs more than a dozen of his favorite ballads on his new CD, A Time for Love. "I'd been wanting to do it for so long," he says. Another of his goals is to play with legendary pianist Oscar Peterson. "Fifty years ago he came through Omaha when I was a young kid, and after his gig I got to sit in on some jam sessions," he beams. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life." He had another brush with celebrity while playing at Chaplin's (owned by Charlie's grandson) in Rancho Mirage. "Lots of showbiz people went there and I worked with a wonderful pianist named Joe Massters," he recalls. "Sinatra would come in once in a while for dinner. I'll never forget one night when I played one of his standards, "I Wish I Knew." I got through and, when I looked up, there were Frank and Barbara clapping. She had her hands over her head. so enthusiastic. I was flippin'!" Yep, Rice has adjusted well to the desert lifestyle. "There's no stress," he says. "That's what I love about it. Even if you're playing something that sounds frantic to the audience, it's not to the artist. It's like jazz therapy every time I play." Sullivan's Steakhouse is located at 73-505 (in The Gardens on) El Paseo, Palm Desert. For information:(760)341-3560. www.DonRiceOnline.com.