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Some Inspired Additions to a Hallowed Tradition

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

New artists are appearing on the jazz scene all the time. And that’s all to the good. The music’s capacity to simultaneously retain its essential attributes while remaining receptive to new ideas is perhaps its most remarkable quality. Here are a few new, lesser-known performers who are well worth watching.

Brad Mehldau has listened carefully to Bill Evans. And the results show in his playing--if at times a bit too obviously. But Mehldau has the technique, the imagination and the focus to move past the Evans influences into his own orbit of expression. His new Warner Bros. album, “The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1,” will be released later this month.

Two other pianist-composers also deserve attention. L.A.'s Billy Childs has been paying his dues in many venues while he has been building credibility as a player and a writer. His album “The Child Within” (Shanachie), released in 1996, still hasn’t received the commercial attention it deserves. Michael Cain, who has played keyboards with everyone from John Scofield and Dave Holland to the M-Base Collective and Jack DeJohnette, brings fresh ideas to the edgy area of avant-garde jazz in “Circa” (ECM). Cain was commissioned to compose a piece for the recent presidential inauguration.

Us3 is not precisely a jazz group. But the English trio’s music is breaking ground via the use of a huge array of sampled jazz music as the basis for their productions. The unit’s first release, the best-selling “Hand on the Torch” (Blue Note), brought jazz sounds to the attention of a generation of young listeners, and their impending release, “Broadway & 52nd,” may continue to stretch the definitions of jazz-associated music.

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The Jazz Passengers with Deborah Harry have also made a practice of exploring new territory. The combination of the Passengers’ amalgam of avant-garde sounds with Marx Brothers whimsy comes together in an utterly indefinable way with former Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry on their upcoming album “Individually Twisted” (32 Records).

Mark Shim is a saxophonist who has graduated from one of jazz’s most prestigious learning academies--the backup band for singer Betty Carter. Like so many other former Carter associates, Shim was given the opportunity to hone and develop his craft in an open and stimulating musical environment. In his appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill with Carter in late 1995, he revealed an imaginative blend of cutting-edge and mainstream playing that signaled the impending arrival of an important new talent. Shim is digging into his first album as a leader; it will arrive later this year from Blue Note.

Diana Krall is not exactly an unknown quantity. But her ascendancy as a singer has been so rapid in the past few months that it’s impossible to overlook her growing importance. A talented pianist, she is--like Nat King Cole, one of her influences--her own perfect accompanist, blending the smooth rhythms of her rich, dark-toned voice with perfectly placed, supportive piano riffs. Krall’s next GRP album, due later this year, will once again find her in a trio setting, accompanied by the superb guitarist Russell Malone.


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