There are times during a Johnny Winter guiter solo when it seems as if his fingers move faster than a mind could think. Flash has its limits, of course, and it wasn't until Winter started producing and touring with Muddy Waters that he began to hone his style back to the sharp punch of his best records. He did it by returning to the blues, and this newfound interest in the purity of the form has prompted his finest playing in years. If Winter's worst flaw in performing with Waters was in incorrigible camaraderie - he'd bellow, "Aww yeah!" at the drop of an E chord - the internship also pared his musicianship to the bone. The difference between his first album ("The Progressive Blues Experiment") and "White, Hot & Blue" is that between a crass kid with riffs and a mature blues stylist.

Recording again with his own group (last year's "Nothing but the Blues" was cut with Waters' band and James Cotton on harp), Winter is more relaxed in his playing and forthright in his leadership. Perhaps it's just these qualities that allow harp player Pat Ramsey to emerge as a costar, blowing juicy solos that slip over the guitar leads like butter onto popcorn. Even when Winter occasionally reverts to flash - as in the terrific break in "One Step at a Time" - he rarely forgest his shrewd sense of dynamics.Blasting through with high-powered authority but never sinking to the cluttered overkill that has sometimes marred his work, the guitarist strikes an effective balance between force and polish.

The lbues is also Winter's vocal forte, and the rock-solid arrangements on "White, Hot & Blue" accentuate the color and strength of his throaty growls. Whether it's the barroom shuffle of Sleepy John Estes' "Divin'Duck" or the souful treatment of Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do" (featuring a rever-ed guitar figure that curls my socks), Johnny Winter has taken these tunes on their own terms and provided us with an extraordinarily hearty does of contemporary blues. JOHNNY WINTER: WHITES, HOT & BLUE - Blue Sky PZ 35475.