Perhaps as much for practical reasons as creative ones, small groups still represent the cutting edge of jazz. So it's encouraging to find that some of the more adventurous music recorded by these bands is still being distributed by major labels, despite limited radio airplay and an increasing tendency on the part of record store chains to devote more space to top-selling CDs.

Ran Blake Quartet: 'Short Life of Barbara Monk'

The albums released over the past few years by Soul Note alone, an Italian label distributed here by Polygram, have been a boon to listeners who appreciate innovative jazz, music often full of delightful surprises. And sometimes those surprises come wrapped in the most ordinary-looking packages.

For instance, at first glance the Ran Blake Quartet's "Short Life of Barbara Monk" (Soul Note 1127) appears to be the usual saxophone and trio session: pianist and composer Blake, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, is joined by tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, drummer Jon Hazilla and bassist Ed Felson. But the album, the only quartet recording Blake has made in a recording career that spans 25 years, is anything but ordinary. Inspired in part by Thelonious Monk's daughter, a member of the funk group T.S. Monk who succumbed to cancer two years after her father's death, the album is suffused with a dark, lyrical beauty, much of it reminiscent of Monk's own probing compositions.

Monk's jarring sense of harmony and fondness for stark accents are first evoked on "I've Got You Under My Skin," an alternately moody, swinging and dissonant interpretation of the pop standard that nicely showcases Ford's virile tenor. But it's on the album's title tune, a graceful, pirouetting theme apparently inspired by a dream Blake had of watching Barbara Monk ice skate, that his talent for constructing a visual scene comes into sharp focus. The piece gently resonates with emotion and the fragility of a young life.

Blake explores death as a theme elsewhere on the album, notably on "Pourquoi, Laurent?", a brooding elegy composed after the suicide of French jazz critic Laurent Goddet. But the album isn't as gloomy as it may appear on paper. Ford's full-throated sax and Felson's humming bass lines are put to excellent use on the jaunty Stan Kenton theme "Artistry in Rhythm," and the impressionistic ballad "In Between," composed by one of Blake's former students, has a decidedly romantic bent shared by other tunes on the album.

Steve Lacy: 'Momentum'

With the release of "Momentum" (RCA-Novus 3021-1-N), the Paris-based soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy is back recording for an American label, and the album is an excellent way to get reacquainted with his work.

It opens with "The Bath," a brief, whimsical, bluesy, totally engaging score he wrote for a film called "Max." A former Dixieland musician who went on to collaborate with Monk and Cecil Taylor, among other modern innovators, Lacy swings effortlessly throughout the performance, modeling it after that of the Duke Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown. His sax is neatly echoed and sometimes shaded by saxophonist Steve Potts, but for all its swinging ease, Lacy's tone has an appealing tartness about it, a vibrant edge that cuts across the rhythm section and clearly inspires its members, particularly bassist Jean-Jacques Avinel.

In fact, the sound of Lacy's sax is always intriguing here, even in the somewhat rarefied context of "Art," a chamber piece featuring soprano vocalist Irene Aebi. Aebi's voice, violin and cello come to play a more impressive role on the album later, beginning with "Momentum," Lacy's fiercely turbulent tribute to the late drummer and fellow expatriate Kenny Clarke. The album concludes on a spiritual note with "The Song," which not only features Lacy's most compelling solo but, by virtue of its east Indian flavor, also suggests the influence his soprano sax had on John Coltrane.

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: 'The Flow of Things'

"The Flow of Things" (Black Saint-Polygram 0090) is the curious offshoot of a series of 1986 concerts devoted to Coltrane's music, performed by saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and a group comprising pianist Jodie Christian, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Steve McCall. Oddly enough, what's included here are just the tunes that brought those concerts to a close. Both are by Mitchell, and one of them, the album's title track, is rendered three times, twice in the studio and once live. As it turns out, once would have been plenty.

Running anywhere from 10 to 13 minutes, the three variations immediately set up an intense, free-form improvisation, centering on Mitchell's braying, querulous, thin-toned soprano. His performance, in turn, is set against as much rhythmic turmoil as his band mates can muster. The effect is sometimes powerful, thanks largely to the way the rhythm section constantly refuels Mitchell's energies, but just as often it's long-winded and tedious. Rather than devote a full half hour of the album's playing time to it, the band would have been better off recording more tunes like the remaining track on the album, the quirky and colorful "Cards for Quartet."