Brad Mehldau, Largo (Warner Brothers): Instrumentation includes "piano with putty treatment in lower two octaves" and "distorto-piano through leslie with whammy pedal" (I did not make that up). Oboes and bassoons and French horns play material by Radiohead ("Paranoid Android"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Wave"), and the Beatles ("Dear Prudence," "Mother Nature's Son"). There are rock backbeats, fancy studio tricks, and electronic effects. The record company hypes the album as "the jazz of the future." Some critics are calling it pretentious. They are wrong. Mehldau's gorgeous new album has such a strong sense of itself and of propriety and purpose that it self-defines and justifies. His elegant keyboard lyricism swings somewhere between Bud Powell and Brahms. The rhythm section is always in just the right slot no matter what the stylistic slant (and there are quite a few). It is not necessary to be able to analyze the sophisticated counter-rhythms to be tickled by them. One of the most tasteful, adventurous, and consistent pianists around, Mehldau just gets better and better.

Ron Miles, Heaven (Sterling Circle): Trumpeter Miles teaches at Metropolitan State College in Denver and has been under the radar for too long. In duo with Bill Frissell, one of the most respected guitarists of the day, he plays originals and songs by Bob Dylan ("A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall"), Thelonious Monk, Hank Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), and Jelly Roll Morton. Calling the album "minimalist" is an understatement. This is a duo without ambition to sound bigger, and splits notes with a brittle, breathy, innocent sound (reminiscent of Johnny Coles with Gil Evans). He tried to "pick songs that go together to capture a joyous feeling." Miles and Frissell create a fresh textural spectrum. With the guitarist's haunting detuned harmonies, the collective sound is like the shining a poet once described as coming from "shook foil."

Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman, Elastic (Warner Brothers): The star saxophonist/composer/ clothes-horse Redman is reinventing himself. Converging currents like funk, jazz, and world music in an attractive, direct way, his new center is viable on both aesthetic and commercial levels - a fine and rare marriage. He sounds like (this is a compliment as well as a prediction of popularity) an intelligent, soulful, tasteful version of Kenny G. The catchy melodies he writes are pared down, quirky, repetitive, bluesy, smart. Not that any one of them is necessarily a hit; they belong inexorably one after the other. No hurry, no detours, no gratuitous technical displays. He harmonizes and doubles himself electronically, and he is not too shy to squeak and honk. Brian Blade provides exactly the percussion this particular moment in time and space requires. Keyboardist Sam Yahel's imaginative and hypnotic chordal patterns, mostly on Hammond B3 organ, are never too busy; they include extended pedal drones. It would be nice to avoid repeating the adjective "minimalist," but it's impossible when describing this music.

Nguyen Le
Nguyen Le, Purple (Act): Celebrating Jimi Hendrix. Four bars of a Hendrix lick and you immediately want to stop whatever you're doing, and to hear him so neatly updated is an ear-opener. "Music has no end," Le says. "Once created, it belongs to those who dream with it." The Franco/Vietnamese Le, with his unique combination of jazz and rock chops and Oriental-oriented world music background, is a choice guitarist for a contemporary take on Hendrix. Bass guitarists Michel Alibo and Meshell Ndegeocello get closer to Jaco Pastorius than to Noel Redding; and co-producer and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington sounds like Mitch Mitchell after studying with Jack DeJohnette. Le wisely chose female voices (Aida Khann, Corin Curschellas, and Carrington) to sing in place of Hendrix, thus stalling temptations to clone: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky."

Leon Parker, Belief (Columbia): Famously minimalist percussionist Parker features African and Latin influences (steel pan, marimba, berimbau, claves, hand drums) to arrive at a kind of grown-up inter-continental children's music. There are dancing dialogues and soulful duets between Tom Harrell, trumpet, Steve Wilson, saxophone, and Steve Davis on trombone. Joel Dorn's production is notable, as are Ugonna Okegwo's tough and tender bass lines. For Parker, being a musician is "both a responsibility and a privilege."