Second Rank Doesn't Mean Second-Rate

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Who are they? Circling around the star points of jazz, often playing accompaniment roles, good enough to have several albums released in their own names, yet still relatively unknown.

There's a strong likelihood that you've heard all of these talented players, most likely in support of better known artists, perhaps occasionally on their own. But the generally high quality of this random collection of releases from not-yet-in-the-spotlight musicians reveals the slim differences that exist among the top levels of jazz achievement.

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*** 1/2 Barney McAll, "Release the Day" (Transparent Music). Australian-born pianist McAll has played with Dewey Redman, Gary Bartz, Vincent Herring, Billy Harper and the Groove Collective, among others. In the third album under his leadership, he works with players ranging from saxophonists Bartz and Peter Apfelbaum to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. McAll's compositions reflect the growing interface taking place--with surprisingly little notice--between jazz and various world-music forms. Afro-Latin rhythms surface here from time to time, alternating with North African timbres, traditional folk melodies, pensively hypnotic meanderings and the blues-tinged vibe of the title track. There's much to hear in this collection, all of it worthy of repeat listening. McAll, who manages to intelligently integrate pop elements into his music, deserves much wider attention.

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*** Eric Alexander, "The Second Milestone" (Milestone). It's hard to believe that tenor saxophonist Alexander, at 32, has already recorded 11 albums under his own name. Still, his career during the past decade reveals what happens when you're a runner-up. Alexander finished behind Joshua Redman in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, with dramatically differing results in subsequent visibility. His playing here, solidly aided by the presence of pianist Harold Mabern, is filled with swing and imagination. At his best, his muscular, dark tone and aggressive rhythmic articulation combine some of the best elements from George Coleman, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. Despite all these positives, however, something seems to be missing in his work--a firm identity, perhaps, or the sense that he is pushing beyond his obviously solid skills into areas of greater musical risk, with the corollary possibility of greater rewards. One wonders how he would sound if he'd spent more time in the creative caldron of the road rather than the more sterile atmosphere of the recording studio.

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*** Antonio Hart, "Ama Tu Sonrisa" (Enja Records). Alto saxophonist Hart is probably best known for his work with Roy Hargrove's groups and his remarkable capacity to revive the Cannonball Adderley style in appearances with Nat Adderley. Despite prior recording deals with RCA Novus and Impulse!, Hart's studio work has never quite matched the passion of his live performances. "Ama Tu Sonrisa" is another example, with Hart's work rarely more than professional and to the point--no small accomplishments, but not up to the level of his capabilities. His writing and arranging, however, fill in the gaps via a series of unusual pieces--including a metrically off-center version of "Have You Met Miss Jones" and a gorgeous tribute to Wayne Shorter's recent bereavement titled "Wayne's Lament."

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*** Mike Metheny, "Close Enough for Love" (Valve Music). Yes, the name is familiar, and with good reason. Metheny, who plays fluegelhorn, cornet and EVI (electronic valve instrument), is the older brother of guitarist Pat Metheny (who makes a guest appearance on one track here). The Kansas City, Mo.-based Metheny has recorded with Karrin Allyson, released five albums under his own name, and edits Jazz Ambassador magazine. His playing tends toward the lyrical, occasionally tinged with traces of Miles Davis. Appropriately, much of the program consists of melodically oriented material--ballads such as the Johnny Mandel title track, Victor Young's "My Foolish Heart" and gentle bossa nova renderings of tunes by Metheny, Bob Florence and Lalo Schifrin. One of the most interesting aspects of the album is the range of sound and expression Metheny is able to extract from the synthesizer sounds of the EVI. It's hard to know, however, what he was thinking with the final track, a bizarre rendition of "The Greatest Love of All" in which Metheny plays the saccharine theme on a squeaky clarinet. If satire was the target, he is way off the mark.

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*** Eric Reed, "Happiness" (Nagel-Heyer Records). Locally raised and trained pianist Reed is one of the Southland's great musical accomplishments. On tour with Wynton Marsalis by age 18, he remained a key member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra throughout the mid-'90s, also working with the bands of Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. He has since performed and recorded with an all-star array of artists, including Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath and Dianne Reeves, as well as pop artists Patti Labelle, Oleta Adams and others. The Marsalis connection--always strong in Reed's work--is omnipresent in this outing, which also features such Lincoln Center associates as Marcus Printup, Wycliff Gordon and Wessell Anderson.

In the Marsalis style, many of the Reed works reveal obvious links with Duke Ellington, more subtle connections with Charles Mingus. The three-movement composition "Suite Sisters" might well have been an Ellington/Strayhorn product, the similarity enhanced by the following track, a Reed version of "Mood Indigo."

To his credit, Reed's writing is immensely skilled, informed by a knowledgeable capacity to extract appealing sounds from the timbres of a relatively small ensemble. And his playing, predictably, is the product of an invigoratingly inventive mind in contact with the roots of jazz tradition.

But Reed still hasn't allowed the genie of his own musical identity to fully inhabit his compositional work. When he does, expect creative fireworks.

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