The past year has been a good one for the jazz organ, the first in a long, long time. Just when it seemed that the instrument's popularity had been totally eclipsed by electric keyboards, the organ has shown new signs of life. Charles Earland, who appeared last night at Blues Alley, has been one of the leading exponents of the instrument.

Unfortunately, his performance was so duffuse that it failed to tap the organ's potential. With a style that encompasses everything from Jimmy Smith's hard bop lines to sweetened soul to Lonnie Liston Smith's ethereal musings, Earland has a tendency to spread his talent thin.

Cheryl Kendrick, who assists Earland on keyboards when she isn't singing frothy lyrics in a pleasant but forgettable manner, doesn't help matters any. In fact, the only time Earland really got a chance to work out in a jazz vein was on "Milestones." Mark Pender opened it with a blistering trumpet solo and then tossed it to saxophonist Roy Nathanson, who reshaped it again in an equally exhausting manner.

Earland finally seemed in his element on "Milestones," but he soon left it for less challenging funk riffs and pop cliches. If the organ is ever to regain even a measure of its mid-'50s popularity, a more focused approach is clearly necessary. Charles Earland appears again tonight.