AMBROSE BIERCE described the piano as "a parlor utensil . . . operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the listener."

Of course, Bierce might have looked more kindly on the instrument had he lived to hear Earl Hines or Fats Waller, but no matter. Today there's no shortage of jazz piano albums to shoot holes in Bierce's ornery assessment, including the following recent releases:

JAMES WILLIAMS -- "Alter Ego" (Sunnyside 1007). Williams first gained recognition several years ago as one of Art Blakey's young charges, and this sextet session occasionally packs the kind of punch one expects to hear from a former Jazz Messenger. Better yet, the album reveals how quickly he's matured, not just as a sensitive and swinging pianist but also as a composer of exotic tone poems("A Touching Affair") and unbridled blues ("Fourplay").

JOHN HICKS -- "John Hicks" (Theresa TR 119). Another former Jazz Messenger, and someone who also managed to challenge and inspire the inexhaustible Betty Carter for years, Hicks has finally recorded an album that measures up to his club performances. His forceful attack and sweeping improvisations, occasionally reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, spark several tunes, particularly those on which he's joined by vibist Bobby Hutcherson and bassist Walter Booker. More revealing, though, are his solo efforts, including a heartfelt treatment of Billy Strayhorn's lovely ballad "Star- Crossed Lovers."

KEITH MacDONALD -- "This Is Keith MacDonald" (Landmark LLP 503). At 60, after spending the last 12 years as a professional jazz musician, MacDonald has finally made his recording debut, and many will regard it as the sleeper of the year. Though he counts Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Bill Evans among his influences, MacDonald approaches this solo collection of standards in a very deliberate and distinctive style -- lyrical, whimsical, at times idiosyncratic. He may not reinvent "Georgia on My Mind," "Laura" or "When Sunny Gets Blue," but he sure makes them sound fresh again.

MAL WALDRON & DAVID FRIESEN -- "Encounters" (Muse MR5305). To hear pianist Waldron and bassist Friesen collaborate on the title tune and the frolicsome "If I Were a Bell" is to be reminded that jazz is really the art of conversation. Each musician is occasionally given free rein, with Waldron sounding his most passionate on his own tune "Outside's Inside Too." But more often these performances are graced by subtle, knowing exchanges and dovetailing improvisations. Encounters of a close kind indeed.

CLARE FISCHER & SALSA PICANTE -- "Crazy Bird" (Discovery DS 914). Granted, fans of Fischer's acoustic piano recordings aren't likely to find his work with Salsa Pi cante particulary expressive, but in its own small way "Crazy Bird" again displays his talent as an arranger. The addition of guest trombonist Bill Watrous makes Salsa Picante's usual combination of Latin percussion and Fischer's electric keyboards all the more colorful, offering a brightly festive fusion music.

RICHARD BEIRACH -- "Breathing of Statues" (Magenta MA202). Though just released, Beirach's latest album was recorded a couple of years ago in Germany, which helps explain why it resembles the rather impressionistic recordings he released on the European ECM label. The music, which weds Beirach's formidable technique to a collection of largely pensive and imaginative themes, continues to unfold with repeated listenings, not unlike many Keith Jarrett recordings.