Any bassist who records as often as Ron Carter does had better keep things interesting. Carter's done it recently by playing musical chairs -- recording with a varying array of musicians in ensembles numbering anywhere from three to 23 pieces. Like Horace Silver, he's experimented with brass and string sections; one recent album even included a cello quartet. Still, it's the intimacy offered by a small group that best suits Carter's supple tone and phrasing, a view reinforced by "Third Plane," an album Carter recorded in 1977 and which has just now been released.

Fans of the late-'70s VSOP Quintet are likely to find "Third Plane" lacking something -- namely, Freddie Hubbard's trumpet and Wayne Shorter's saxophone. This is, after all, nothing more than a chance to hear the VSOP rhythm section -- Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams -- perform alone.

Plainly, there are several places on this album, including a few on the title track, where Hubbard and Shorter would bring welcome color and direction to the music. But as the trio catches its stride, beginning with a steamlined version of Williams' "Lawra," moving through a refreshingly assertive "Stella By Starlight," and peaking during Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," "Third Plane" gains lift, often rising to the level of inspired jazz.

Older albums have a way of returning to haunt musicians but this one won't; bolstered by several deft exchanges and supported by a relationship rooted in Miles Davis's late-'60s recordings, "Third Plane" serves everyone well -- especially Carter, a truly equal voice in this most basic and uncluttered of jazz settings. ON RECORD, ON STAGE; THE ALBUM Third Plane (Milestone 9105). THE SHOW: Carter with guitarist Jim Hall, Tuesday through Saturday at Blues Alley.