John McLaughlin The Promise (Verve) Released at the beginning of '96, this remarkable CD quickly faded from view, probably because Verve is a straight-ahead jazz label and McLaughlin is so eclectic. Here, he revisits various aspects of his career, from Mahavishnu-era blitzkreig runs, to Asian-tinged rhythms recalling the ensemble Shakti, to the distinctive organ-drums-guitar trio format he's forged with Joey DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers. Almost every track sparkles on what amounts to a tour de force.

George Mraz My Foolish Heart (Milestone) An acoustic bassist held in the highest respect by his peers but who is essentially anonymous to the general public, Mraz's buttery tone and elegant command of his instrument permeates this sublime CD.

Al Grey with Jack McDuff Me N' Jack (Pullen) Soulful, gutbucket jazz by trombonist Al Grey and B-3 organist (and Twin Cities resident) Jack McDuff, two old codgers with spry sense of mischievous adventure. It's hard to imagine anyone disliking this disc.

Eddie Palmieri Vortex (TropiJazz) Palmieri may be the father of salsafied Latin jazz, but he changes labels with alarming regularity. This TropiJazz release (actually his second for the label) again provides a compelling blend of ex-Jazz Messengers (trumpeter Brian Lynch, saxophonist Donald Harrison) and Latin scene pros like Jose Clausell on timbales and bassist Oscar Partraya. But the real surprise is provided by Palmieri, who adds a few beats to Beethoven's "Minuet in G" and transforms it into a Cuban danzon.

Cedar Walton Composer (Astor Place)/Horace Silver The Hardbop Grandpop (Impulse!) Two majesterial pianists, two gorgeous CDs that emanate from the heart of contemporary mainstream jazz. Walton's collections of self-penned standards are as smooth and complete as his flowing piano solos, like water seeking its own level. He's grouped in a crackerjack sextet featuring telepathic drummer Victor Lewis. Silver's CD is funkier, of course, with more smirks and less overt elegance, but quite natty all the same.

Madeleine Peyroux Dreamtime (Atlantic) Like Cassandra Wilson and Kevin Mahogany, vocalist Peyroux moves beyond the standard jazz songbook for atmospheric remakes of pop and blues tunes. Her blessing (and curse?) is a voice that bears an uncanny similarity to Billie Holiday.

D.D. Jackson Rhythm Dance (Justin Time) Those who miss the stirring glissando runs and hopscotch phrases of the recently deceased pianist Don Pullen will find some solace in Jackson, a similarly styled keyboardist who earned his spurs in David Murray's octet and has both the flair and the brains to be a star someday.

Joe Henderson Big Band (Verve) After embracing Henderson's tributes to Billy Strayhorne and Miles Davis, the public has been more leery of Henderson's first foray as a big band leader. Their loss. As with McCoy Tyner, Henderson's relentless jazz scholarship and desire to find his own voice has well-prepared him to lead an ensemble that includes luminaries like Nicholas Payton, Chick Corea, and Freddie Hubbard.

The Women Pianists Of Blue Note Records Women have been the exception more than the rule in jazz, but the folks at Blue Note don't seem to have any trouble finding singularly compelling stylists. Japanese-born Junko Onishi put out two incredible CDs in '96, the sleek but raucously delightful Piano Quintet Suite and the piquant Hat Trick, where she gets co-billing with great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Within three months time, pianist Renee Rosnes located her long-lost biological mother and watched her adoptive mother succumb to cancer; the searing and yet multifaceted music of Ancestors is her response to that time. Normally a two-handed firebrand, Michele Rosewoman sounds quieter and more introspective on Spirit, a wonderful live trio recording. And the kinetic dynamo Geri Allen had no Blue Note disks last year, but did become the first pianist to work with the incomparable Ornette Colemen in over 35 years on Coleman's two Sound Museum disks. I eagerly look forward to a CD under Allen's own name in 1997.

INDEPENDENT LABEL CONTACTS: Milestone Records c/o Fantasy, Inc., Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA.,94710... Pullen Music Inc., P.O. Box 309, Litchfield, CT., 06759... Justin Time Records Inc., 5455 rue Pare, suite 101, Montreal (Quebec) Canada, H4P 1P7, (514) 737-9780, Astor Place Recordings, 740 Broadway, New York, N.Y., 10001

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