By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
Here's a statistic for you--the word jazz is employed to describe six of this month's 13 specially recommended albums. To a certain extent this is fallout from my Miles column. But it's also the diligent listener's response to the new instrumental order crystallized by techno.
ARCANA: Arc of the Testimony (Axiom/Island) Expecting some avant-ambient acid jazz venture, you put it on and wonder why the other guys can't be this smart. Then you check the personnel and decide it's because these aren't actually avant-ambient acid jazz guys--just Bill Laswell indulging his fondness for post-Coltrane saxophone and post-Hendrix guitar. Since Laswell has long explored these tastes with depressingly competent results, however, you transfer credit to the late Tony Williams. But unfortunately, Williams hadn't been making such focused records either. So, with Buckethead and Nicky Skopelitis ruled out as decisive variables, the secret comes down to this: Pharoah Sanders doing his thing, Graham Haynes being told what his is. A MINUS
MARY J. BLIGE: Share My World (MCA) Her song sense rooted in slow jams not soul, her soul rooted in radio not the church, Blige is a diva for her own time. As befits her hip hop ethos, she's never soft if often vulnerable, and as befits her hip hop aesthetic, she plays her natural vocal cadences for melodic signature and sometimes hook. Too strong to talk dirty, she leaves not the slightest doubt of her sexual prowess. She redefines the New York accent for the '90s. And she's taken two straight follow-ups to the next level. A MINUS
CORNERSHOP: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) What's so disarming, and confusing, about Tjinder Singh is that he doesn't have a lot to say. Here he is realizing a historical inevitability a decade or three in the making--namely, an international pop so seamless that its fusion of alt-rock, Punjabi melody, hip hop, and what-all is subsumed into its own song-based catchiness right up to the time Singh reclaims ''Norwegian Wood'' for the land of the sitar. And indeed, his lyrics vaguely express the proper liberal attitudes toward the weighty social issues his achievement implies. But there's no sense of mission, just a handsome dilettante enjoying his easy tunes and found beats; he's not even trying to go pop, especially. Which is why he has at least the potential to become a naturalizing force, where OMC is just another airplay fluke. A MINUS
BOB DYLAN: Time Out of Mind (Columbia) A soundscape as surely as Maxinquaye or The Ballad of Tom Joad, only more tuneful and less depressive--that is, merely bereft, rather than devoid of will or affect. Lyrically, it splits the difference between generalized El Lay schlock and minor Child ballad; a typical couplet goes, ''You left me standing in the doorway crying/In the dark land of the sun.'' So the words are good enough except on the Billy Joel--covered ''Make You Feel My Love,'' yet rarely what you come back to--''Highlands'' doesn't approach the Sam Shepardized '80s epic ''Brownsville Girl.'' The hooks are Dylan's spectral vocals--just his latest ventriloquist's trick, a new take on ancient, yet so real, so inevitable--and a band whose quietude evokes the sleepy postjunk funk of Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard without the nearness of sex. Special kudos to Augie Meyers, the Al Kooper the world has been waiting for. A MINUS
FOREST FOR THE TREES (DreamWorks) The initial temptation is to gush over how trip-hoppy Carl Stephenson was ere world or underworld heard tell of Tricky or DJ Shadow. But in fact this 1993 recording shows its age, most tellingly by assuming that tunes are a good thing. Stephenson cut his studio chops producing rappers--first the Geto Boys, then the College Boyz, two apparently dissimilar acts whose hunger for hits transcended petty differences. So when he entered the rock world, he saw no reason to believe that texture and melody were mutually exclusive. And if it turns out that this was naive, well, naivete is one thing that makes this obsession disguised as an album so appealing. Finally, we who prefer Mellow Gold to Odelay have a good idea why. A MINUS
JANET JACKSON: The Velvet Rope (Virgin) Why do I believe that this self-made object's mild kink and coyly matter-of-fact bisexuality are functions of flesh pure and simple? That for her sex really is about pleasure rather than power--or even, except as a side issue, love? Because her sex songs are flavorful where her love songs are all cliche, and because her much-berated fluting little-girl timbre whispers innocence even when she's loosening her new friend's pretty French gown. So in the absence of total personal fulfillment, here's hoping she retains her magical ability to feign delight, to fool herself as well as everyone else. A MINUS
JAZZ SATELLITES--VOLUME 1: ELECTRIFICATION (Virgin import) Running the gauntlet of not just fusion but such ignominious genres as Third Stream, soundtrack, and acid jazz, kowtowing to pretenders, meddlers, mooncalves, and schlockmeisters like Jan Garbarek, Teo Macero, Alice Coltrane, Norman Connors, and a panoply of pseudonymous English cyborgs on the order of Divine Styler, this obscurely annotated double-CD is the great lost testament of late Miles--cacophonous, futuristic, swinging-to-spacey variations on everything he thought he was doing between Bitches Brew and Agharta. Connecting up the mind-to-the-wall charge of early Mahavishnu and Tony Williams Lifetime, it ought to demonstrate the obvious to technomancers the world over--raid jazz for avant sounds and leave its beats for hip hop to sort out. In fact, it proved so indigestible that in its native U.K. it vanished without notice. I hear Other Music imports them by the single unit. If you find one, don't let go. A MINUS