MORE THAN THE SUMS OF THEIR PARTS 

But Karate isn't a '70s soundalike any more than it mimics its indie contemporaries. The group has been putting out spare, beautifully quiet (but not shoe-gazing) records since the mid-'90s, and is ripe for wider discovery. Though the "automatic writing" lyrics can be baffling, they're as great at creating moods as they are indifferent to specific messages, especially when delivered by singer Geoff Farina. Hovering in some middle ground of stylistic tendencies, it's remarkable how unmistakeably its own Karate's sound is.

With the state of commercial jazz today, it's almost quaint for rockers to allow themselves to be influenced by it. And it's rare for jazz folks to be able to incorporate pop trends in their own music without sounding gimmicky. One exception is pianist Jason Moran, whose new solo disc Modernistic (Blue Note) takes a broad view of what is "modern." Moran's earlier work was impressive for the way he had digested hip-hop's pulse, making it a part of his work in a way you'd almost have to be a hip-hopper to get. (He's also the man who turned a Björk tune into his own beautiful jazz standard.)

You don't have to be an insider, though, to see there's something happening on "Planet Rock," the Afrika Bambaataa/Soul Sonic Force tune Moran covers here. Apparently using a prepared piano for the driving rhythm line, Moran employs a couple of little studio tricks for the melody, which is just as catchy now, without a huge man from the Bronx selling it to you. After wrapping up his cover version, Moran goes on to compose a fresh coda to it, taking the bits apart and making them flow instead of bounce; it's reminiscent of what he does to Björk's "Joga" when he plays it live.

Ramsay Midwood's great debut Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant (Vanguard) hits the streets next Tuesday. Supposedly, when the Gourds (who had fallen in love with his record via a European release of it) met him, they made him show his ID to prove he was who he claimed. Midwood's voice is haggard and care-worn, sounding like it probably belongs to a black farm worker, but the man himself is a relatively youthful white guy, a little shaggy but a long way from decrepit.

The songs are shambling, shuffling country blues with occasionally surreal lyrics, the kind of thing you might get if you made Tom Waits run a marathon, and then sat him down exhausted with a band recruited from Los Angeles roadhouses. Here, a monster truck becomes an act of political defiance, and a guy knows mytho-medical folklore is true because he "read it on the radio."

It's impossible to link Midwood to any current threads in the musical landscape; it's like he leap-frogged a generation or two without knowing the first thing about turn-of-the-millenium radio trends. Maybe that's because he squandered his energy pursuing an acting career: Aside from two aborted jobs with Chicago's influential Steppenwolf theater (where he understudied for Gary Sinise in Grapes of Wrath), that part of the singer's life amounted to little more than a career in movies that never even merited distribution.

To hear this album, failure's been good for him. Still, one hopes he finds enough success as a musician to stick with it a while.

More by John DeFore

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